World Economy

Strong Words, Little Substance

Strong Words, Little SubstanceStrong Words, Little Substance

After a one-day summit in the US Arctic’s biggest city, leaders from the world’s northern countries acknowledged that climate change is seriously disrupting the Arctic ecosystem, yet left without committing themselves to serious action to fight the negative impacts of global warming.

The Aug. 31 summit on ‘Global Leadership in the Arctic–Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement, and Resilience (GLACIER)’, was organized by the US State Department and attended by dignitaries from 20 countries, including the eight Arctic nations–Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and United States, Leehi Yona wrote for IPS.                    

Political leaders like US President Barack Obama, who urged Arctic nations to take bolder action as the summit ended, came out with strong words, but stakeholders from civil society and scientific groups said the outcome came short of the tangible action needed.

The summit attracted the attention of environmental and indigenous groups, which criticized Obama’s reputation as a climate leader in the face of allowing offshore oil drilling in the Arctic.

Numerous protests and acts of non-violent civil disobedience in recent months have attempted to block oil company Shell from drilling; the company is currently active off the Alaskan coast.

“The recent approval of Shell’s Arctic oil drilling plans is a prime example of the disparity between Obama’s strong rhetoric and increasing action on climate change and his administration’s fossil fuel extraction policies,” said David Turnbull, Campaigns Director for Oil Change International.

All participating countries signed a joint statement on climate change and its impact on the Arctic, after the initial reluctance of Canada and Russia, which eventually added their names.

“We take seriously warnings by scientists: temperatures in the Arctic are increasing at more than twice the average global rate,” the statement read, before going on to describe the wide range of impacts felt by Arctic communities’ landscapes, culture and well-being.

“As change continues at an unprecedented rate in the Arctic–increasing the stresses on communities and ecosystems in already harsh environments–we are committed more than ever to protecting both terrestrial and marine areas in this unique region, and our shared planet, for generations to come.”

 No Commitments

However, the statement lacked concrete commitments, even on crucial topics like fossil fuel exploration in the Arctic, leaving climate experts with the feeling that it could have been more ambitious or have offered more specific, tangible commitments on the part of countries.

“I appreciate the rhetoric and depth of acknowledgement of the climate crisis,” the World Climate Project Manager at Climate Interactive, Ellie Johnston, told IPS. “Yet this statement unfortunately fails to fully acknowledge one of the grave threats to the Arctic and to the planet – the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.”

“This is particularly relevant as nations and companies jockey for access to drilling in our historically icy Arctic seas which have now become more accessible because of warming,” she said. “Drilling for fossil fuels leads to more warming, which leads to more drilling. This is one feedback loop we can stop.”

Oil and gas companies were encouraged–but not required–to voluntarily take on more stringent policies and join the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s Oil and Gas Methane Partnership, an initiative to help companies reduce their emissions of methane and other short-lived climate pollutants.

In a closing address to summit participants, Obama repeatedly said “we are not doing enough.” He outlined the stark impacts of a future with business-as-usual climate change: thawing permafrost, forest fires and dangerous feedback loops. “We will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair … any leader willing to take a gamble on a future like that is not fit to lead,” he stated.

However, Obama failed to acknowledge, as many environmental groups have pointed out, that the United States’ current greenhouse gas emissions reduction commitment falls nearly halfway short of what the country must do in order to stay within the Paris conference goal of a 2°C warming limit.