US Arctic Report Card is incomplete without tackling solutions
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is expected to release its 2021 Arctic Report Card this week, covering topics from loss of sea ice to thawing permafrost and wildfires. Although the science behind the report card will be impeccable, the report itself will deserve no better grade than an “incomplete” if it fails to discuss measures to protect the Arctic.
The Arctic plays an essential role regulating the global climate. But as past NOAA’s Report Cards show, the Arctic is unraveling rapidly. It’s no longer enough to measure and observe the ticking climate time bomb at the top of the world. International policy-makers, starting with the United States and the seven other countries of the Arctic Council, need to focus on how to protect this crucial region’s role in preventing climate destabilization.
What we already know
Thanks to the scientists at NOAA and elsewhere, we know a great deal about the Arctic’s critical role in the climate system and the dangerous changes currently underway.
We know that the Arctic is warming three times faster than the world as a whole, and that thawing Arctic permafrost is releasing carbon dioxide along with the super climate pollutant methane.
We know that we’ve already lost nearly half of the Arctic’s summer sea ice — which reflects solar radiation safely back to space — and that losing the rest over the sunlit months would add the equivalent of 25 years of climate emissions at the current rate.
We know that Arctic warming is likely linked with disastrous weather shifts for other regions, including the Pacific Northwest heatwave that took hundreds of lives this summer and the deadly freeze in Texas earlier this year that cost dozens of lives and left millions without power.
We know that there is only a brief window of time to slow warming before self-amplifying feedbacks destabilize the global climate system and we face “Hothouse Earth,” with unstoppable warming,
catastrophic level sea level rise and massive migration.
What we now need to know
As valuable as the Arctic Report Cards are, they now need to analyze ways to protect the Arctic, and by extension the global climate system.
We need a plan to stop — and reverse — the loss of sea ice, slow thawing of permafrost, and halt the disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet and other glaciers. Such a plan might have many components.
Cutting emissions of carbon dioxide is essential, but not fast enough alone. This makes it essential to pair decarbonization with aggressive reductions in short-lived super climate pollutants. Deep cuts to black carbon, methane, tropospheric ozone and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) could reduce Arctic warming by up to two-thirds.
The United Nation’s Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol is phasing down HFCs, and could be accelerated; it’s mandatory provisions have already been ratified by a 129 countries, including China, India and Russia. Methane is being targeted in the U.S. and Europe, and more than 100 countries have endorsed the Global Methane Pledge to cut global emissions by at least 30 percent from 2020 levels by 2030. This should be followed by a global methane agreement inspired by the successful Montreal Protocol. With up to half of methane coming from natural sources, it’s important to research strategies to remove atmospheric methane.
Interventions to limit melting and to regrow sea ice could include covering ice with reflective beads, growing it by pumping seawater on top, or building berms to prevent glaciers from slipping into the sea. These strategies should be explored to determine their safety and efficacy.
We should also study the feasibility and safety of injecting reflective aerosols into the stratosphere and brightening marine clouds to reflect more of the sun’s radiation. Such approaches — although radical — could be the only means of cooling the earth quickly enough to save Arctic ice and permafrost, and thereby prevent self-amplifying feedbacks from pushing the planet past catastrophic tipping points. Investing in research and development can put us in a position to deploy these technologies in the relatively near future if necessary.
When a young student fails a course, the report card is sent to the parents or guardian for a signature — and it’s then the guardian’s job to take remedial action. We can’t afford to let world leaders, including President Biden and his special climate envoy John Kerry, as well as leaders of the other Arctic Council countries, sign off on NOAA’s Arctic Report Card without taking a hard look at its findings. They must initiate a process to define the Arctic we need for a safe climate, and then develop all-of-government and global strategies to get us there.
Durwood Zaelke is president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development (IGSD) in Washington, D.C. and Paris, adjunct professor, University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also co-author of “Cut Super Climate Pollutants Now!: The Ozone Treaty’s Urgent Lessons for Speeding Up Climate Action.”
Gabrielle Dreyfus, Ph.D., is chief scientist at IGSD and has been an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.
Rafe Pomerance is distinguished senior arctic policy fellow at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, and former State Department deputy assistant secretary for environment and development in the Clinton administration.
Daniel Bodansky is regents’ professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, and former State Department climate change coordinator in the Clinton administration.
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