Policy

Former State official Pomerance calls on White House to prioritize climate during Arctic Council chairmanship

Next spring, the United States will assume chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental panel of eight nations bordering the Arctic. How is the U.S.'s chairmanship significant to the agenda established by the council? During today's OnPoint, Rafe Pomerance, former deputy assistant secretary of State for environment and development and a member of the Polar Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences, urges the State Department to prioritize climate action in its Arctic agenda. He also discusses his expectations for how the priorities of the U.S.'s chairmanship will differ from those of the current Canadian chairmanship.

Transcript

Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Rafe Pomerance, former deputy assistant secretary of State for environment and development and a member of the Polar Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences. Rafe, thank you for joining me.

Rafe Pomerance: Pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: Next spring the U.S. will assume chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental panel of eight nations bordering the Arctic. You're part of a group of U.S.-based organizations working on climate solutions for the Arctic. What message are you trying to deliver to the administration ahead of its chairmanship?

Rafe Pomerance: Sure. Well, what we see is a convergence at this moment; three things have come together. That makes this kind of a very important time. No. 1, the United States, as you mentioned, takes over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council from Canada next spring. No. 2, John Kerry, who understands the climate issue very well, understands what's at risk, is our secretary of State. And No. 3, the Arctic is unraveling, and the data of the last few years is overwhelming in terms of the trends.

No. 1, Greenland is shrinking. Greenland has ultimately 20 feet of sea-level rise. The fate of Greenland is the fate of Miami, and Greenland is shrinking. No. 2, also about sea-level rise, the Canadian and Alaskan glaciers are shrinking. They have more ice in them than any other mountain glaciers in the world: the Himalayas, the Andes and so on. No. 3, permafrost is thawing, and permafrost contains massive amounts of carbon, which if the thawing continues [it] will ultimately end up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane. No. 4, we already have what the National Academy has decided as an abrupt climate change with a loss of sea ice at record lows in both extent and volume. And finally, slow extent at high latitudes is going very quickly, which changes the whole reflectivity of the Earth. So this unraveling is very big, it has grave consequences, so we need to speak to it.

So our argument to the State Department has been that this is the issue they should focus on. We've suggested that. They understand it.

Monica Trauzzi: And Secretary Kerry has long considered climate change as a critical and top-tier issue.

Rafe Pomerance: Right.

Monica Trauzzi: So is there any reason to believe that the State Department wouldn't go into this chairmanship without climate as the top agenda? And what are some of the key things that they need to be doing now in order to prepare for that?

Rafe Pomerance: Well, I think it's a pretty straightforward question that we have to make climate change a priority for our chairmanship, climate change in the Arctic, which has global consequences. I think there are plenty of other agenda items that could take up the space, but the climate issue is the overwhelmingly big one and ultimately the most important. So I think it's a smart thing for the State Department to see that, and so I think that there's a good chance it will happen. Those are the initial indications.

Monica Trauzzi: How do you think the U.S.'s chairmanship will differ from the current Canadian chairmanship?

Rafe Pomerance: Actually I think there's a big difference. The Canadian chairmanship has focused on economic development in the north. It hasn't addressed with any specificity or with any sort of energy the -- what's actually happening to the Arctic. And so I think the contrast will be quite substantial if the U.S. goes this way. We had hoped the Canadians would be much more outspoken on this; they haven't. But I think that the United States will change course.

Monica Trauzzi: Economics play a huge role, though, here in the U.S., too. I mean, certainly we hear particularly from Republicans a big political push to move forward on energy development in the Arctic. So how should the U.S. be balancing those economic and energy goals with this climate agenda?

Rafe Pomerance: Right. Well, the first thing is that when people talk about the Arctic these days, they talk about the opportunities in oil and gas and shipping and so on. But that's all made possible by a melting part of our planet, the sea ice and so on. What doesn't go hand in hand with that is an understanding and a recognition of the profound consequences of losing the ice of the Arctic. So that's the first thing. There are major negative consequences -- major -- to having the Arctic unravel before us. So we have to take that into account in making policy. In fact, U.S. interests -- you could argue that U.S. national interests are very much in keeping Greenland intact to the maximum extent because of the sea-level-rise problem, and keeping the permafrost frozen because if the feedback gets started it will complicate all the global emissions efforts. I mean, there's a massive amount of potential warming in the permafrost.

Monica Trauzzi: How definitive is the modeling on emissions for the Arctic?

Rafe Pomerance: Modeling -- well-

Monica Trauzzi: Does that continue to evolve, the modeling on emissions?

Rafe Pomerance: I would say the modeling if anything has been too conservative on the rate of deterioration of the Arctic. Greenland isn't that well understood or sufficiently understood. Sea ice is going downhill much faster than the models suggest. So I think the models have been directionally correct but they have tended to underestimate the rate and magnitude of loss.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. It'll be interesting to see what happens over the next few months as they head towards the chairmanship. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Rafe Pomerance: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]

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