A continental plan to fight climate change
BY DR. THOMAS F. PEDERSEN, RAFE POMERANCE, AND RICARDO ALVAREZ
Prime Minister Trudeau, U.S. President Obama and Mexican President Peña-Nieto will meet June 29 in Ottawa at the North American Leadership Summit (NALS) to discuss shared continental interests and futures. While energy and climate change issues are slated for discussion, these leaders must recognize that action is needed urgently to protect citizens from the vast climate change impacts that inextricably link their three countries.
The first five months of 2016 set yet another record in the North: Sea-ice coverage on the surface of the Arctic Ocean has been the lowest since the satellite era began. The reason: The Arctic is warming and unraveling faster than anywhere else on the planet.
The retreat of Arctic sea ice has impacts that reach far south of the Arctic Circle. Due to warming at the top of the world, more sea surface is being exposed, which absorbs more solar radiation and accelerates the snow and ice loss already underway. That extra warming appears to be changing the very character of the jet stream, altering wind and weather patterns as far south as northern Mexico and Florida while also contributing to the record warming over Greenland, as seen very recently.
The melting Greenland ice sheet and the shrinking Canadian and Alaskan glaciers are now major contributors to sea-level rise, putting at risk the North American coastline. Alaska feels the effect in the form of coastal erosion as a result of thawing permafrost and loss of protective coastal sea ice, which allows storm waves to hammer now-vulnerable shorelines — shorelines that had been stable for millennia.
Southeast Florida (greater Miami), among several mid-latitude cities, also feels the impact: Saltwater intrusion into coastal aquifers is a growing problem for drinking water supplies, and flooding during King tides is now occurring with increasing frequency in many coastal U.S. cities.
Canada and Mexico aren’t immune from such climatic impacts. The east coast of Mexico, including the Yucatan, is in the path of rising seas. Recent storm surges in the region have become faster-flowing, higher and more damaging. Furthermore, the prime tourism destinations of Cancun and the Maya Riviera have lost over 50 per cent of their sandy beaches since 2005’s Hurricane Wilma, despite two large-scale re-nourishing projects.
To the north, Canadian coastlines are under assault from rising seas and coastal erosion on all three oceanic fronts: Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic. But the risk for our continent goes beyond sea-level rise. In the Yukon and Northwest Territories, permafrost is thawing — a worrying trend that could lead to large releases of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, further accelerating climate change.
What all of this points to is the need to better understand the continental-scale physics — the causes and effects — that are changing the climate connections between North America’s Arctic, the United States and Mexico. Existing monitoring networks that record critical weather data currently limit the ability of scientists to define with high confidence the domino-effect relationships that span the North Pole to the Equator — like the interactions between the jet stream and sea ice.
At the NALS, the three leaders can step up to this significant challenge by committing to collaborate and expand the monitoring network that provides vital information relevant to all three countries from coast to coast to coast.
Two outcomes at the NALS are critical:
- We must develop and promote trilateral, cost-effective responses to climatic impacts. Reducing fossil fuel use, as quickly as possible, will blunt the rate of global warming. And slowing warming will give us time to meet the second imperative —
- We must implement a continental-scale, collaborative framework that aligns and integrates the decision making required to reduce fossil-fuel consumption and implement adaptation strategies on a continental scale.
There is also a need for site-specific solutions — Florida’s “Adaptation Action Areas” program is but one successful example — and these solutions may require novel collaborations and funding approaches. By sharing knowledge and investment capital and collaborating on such initiatives as integrated, cross-border renewable-electricity grids, all three countries can win.
Trilateral action at a continental scale isn’t just a pipe dream. It’s happened in the past — the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) being the obvious example. The challenge now is to recognize that global warming, from the Arctic to Central America, puts at risk millions of human lives, and trillions of dollars in infrastructure and economic activity — including any gains we might have made from freer trade.
In Ottawa, our three wise leaders must come to grips with an Arctic that is rapidly unraveling. They have an opportunity to act together to lessen the risks. Let’s hope they rise to the challenge.
Dr. Thomas F. Pedersen is Chair of the Canadian Climate Forum, and Professor of earth and ocean sciences at the University of Victoria. Rafe Pomerance is Chair of Arctic 21, a network of NGO scientists and advocates on Arctic climate issues, and is also a member of the Polar Research Board of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Ricardo Alvarez is President of Mitigat.com Inc., a Research Affiliate at Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Environmental Studies and an expert on sea level rise, hurricanes and their impacts in Mexico.