The Arctic and the desert: Climate change lessons from Greenland

As we in the Southern California desert wait for the end of a summer with seemingly endless triple-digit days, the long hot summer of climate change has had more dramatic impacts in the northern reaches of Alaska and Greenland.

Warren Olney’s To the Point news program on KCRW Sept. 23 looked at the receding Arctic ice cap and the changes it is driving in Greenland, an autonomous state of Denmark, with a population of 57,000 and apparently huge resources in rare earth minerals — which, with the ice melting, are now possible to mine — as well as offshore oil.

The program includes interviews with Elizabeth Rosenthal of The New York Times, who has written an article on the current changes underway in Greenland; Jens B. Frederiksen, vice premier of Greenland;  Alice Rogoff, publisher of the Alaska Dispatch, an online news website, and Jon Hoekstra of the World Wildlife Fund.

It’s all worth a listen, and is still available online, because what’s happening in the Artic — in Greenland and Alaska — has parallels with our renewable energy development in the Southern California desert, where resources that were previously not economical to tap, whether solar, wind, or geothermal — are now being developed.

For example, Hoeskstra talks about the Arctic as the last frontier, presenting an opportunity to develop resources while also protecting the environment — it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation, he said.

“We have the scientific tools to quantify the risks and rewards; we have the opportunity to map those and consider the tradeoffs carefully; we don’t have to repeat the mistakes we have made when we’ve developed other frontiers.”

Frederiksen was extremely thoughtful on his country’s ability to control development of its resources and think about what its national priorities should be.

“What is it we want – is it only money, only the value of money we need. Do we need other things? Do we need political influence in the Arctic? Do we want to have influence on worldwide climate policy?”

In the desert, the process for balancing all the competing interests, through the federal Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement and the state’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan,  has shown just how difficult this can be. The DRECP has most recently come under fire from its own panel of independent science advisors who released a report slamming the plan for its lack of good scientific research.

Another key point coming out of the KCRW program is the federal government’s predictable foot-dragging on climate change policy and its impact in the Arctic. Rogoff pointed out there is no deep water port on Alaska’s Arctic coastline, which is just as long as the eastern seaboard from Maine to Florida. There are huge economic and national security issues at stake, she said.

The melting of the Arctic ice could open up a northern shipping passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that would be 45 percent cheaper than the Panama Canal, she said. Rosenthal noted that while scientists originally thought it would be decades before such a passage opened up, if melting continues at the current pace, it could happen by the end of the decade.

The Alaska Dispatch reported recently on the record summer ice melt this year:

“The (National Snow and Ice Data Center) reports that the melting season appears to have ended Sept. 16, and at that time, it covered about 1.32 million square miles. The record low came more than a quarter-million square miles before, when scientists measured the extent at 1.58 million square miles in late August. The previous low was recorded in September 2007 at 1.61 million square miles.”

Olney ended the discussion with a connection to the presidential election or rather why climate change and the opening of Arctic have not been major issues. The U.S. has not even ratified the U.N. convention on the law of the sea, which would ensure the country’s access to Arctic resources along the Alaskan border.

When Rosenthal called the State Department for her Greenland article to find out its position on these issues, the answer she got was that there is no position.

At this point, it’s anyone’s guess what it’s going to take to get the presidential candidates and the country in general to get serious about climate change and all the complex, critical issues its spawning.

Frederiksen had the last word:

“When the candidates are running for the presidency, it should be a very big issue, the climate change,” he said, speaking from a boat in a fjord, with ice bergs floating all around.

“That’s the only way you can focus worldwide attention on it, the only way the big countries can take it seriously and reduce the outlet of CO2. That’s the only way you can save the world.”