In Reykjavik: Arctic Conference Sounds Climate Alarm

October 13, 2013

While in Reykjavik last week, we heard that a newly organized Arctic Circle Conference, meant to be an ongoing annual event for those with territory or interests in the Arctic, was going to meet shortly after our Earth 101 conference.

Speakers included Al Gore, Hilary Clinton, and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski. Here’s the update.

Alaska Dispatch:

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — As the inaugural Arctic Circle conference got officially underway here Saturday, a specter loomed over the proceedings. The conference, which brings together policymakers, business leaders, researchers from across the world to discuss issues important to the Arctic, convened with messages from dignitaries of Iceland, Greenland, the United States, United Nations, Canada and Russia, and all of them shared a concern — the outsized impact of climate change in the Arctic and what it means for far northern populations going forward.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, speaking in a video message, called climate change “the greatest long-term threat to our survival.” Moments later, Greenland Premier Aleqa Hammond said her country “strongly support(s)” the UN’s stance on climate change. One by one, officials from various Arctic countries — including Alaska’s U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski — asserted their concerns over melting sea ice, ocean acidification and the possibility of methane release that could exponentially increase the rate of global warming.

“You can’t afford being a climate skeptic, living in the Arctic,” said Johan von de Gronden, chief executive of the World Wildlife Fund in the Netherlands.

And though much was said, and the agreement was largely unanimous that humans must act to attempt to mitigate the effects of climate change, there were few solutions. Some talked of switching to a low-carbon economy, abandoning fossil fuels and utilizing more renewable resources.

Iceland is an appropriate place to beat that drum. The island nation of about 315,000 people gets the majority of its energy from hydroelectric and geothermal sources, and continues to strive for complete energy independence. But for other countries who are still heavily dependent on oil and gas — including Arctic heavyweights Russia, Canada and the U.S. — making such a transition would be difficult, to say the least.

And Russia is actually doing the opposite. Russian Arctic ambassador Anton Vasiliev said that his country is “planning to produce the first oil in the ice-covered Arctic offshore next month.”

“Mitigation and adaptation” were another common theme, suggested as the methods for Arctic peoples to deal with the seeming inevitability of the effects of global warming in the Arctic, where such changes are taking place at roughly twice the rate of the rest of the globe.

For some, adaptation could mean moving — the term “climate refugees” was brought up more than once, referring to both animals and humans. The massive autumn walrus haulout that’s been taking place at Point Lay, Alaska, almost every year since 2007 was pointed to as one example. Some speculate that a lack of sea ice in the Chukchi Sea could be to blame.

Meanwhile, also in Alaska, the village of Kivalina is often cited as a community that will likely have to relocate due to the ongoing effects of climate change, including intensified coastal erosion caused by longer periods of open water off the coastline.





16 Responses to “In Reykjavik: Arctic Conference Sounds Climate Alarm”

  1. jimbills Says:

    We have such enormous dragons to slay before climate change can be actively addressed – that’s the sobering truth. Here is a partial list:

    1) Corporate and big money’s influence over the government. Until meaningful campaign finance and lobbying reform is enacted, the government will continue to address corporate needs before communal needs.

    2) Corporate and big money’s influence over the media. This is all but impossible, as corporations own the media (except for the handful of public stations, and even there corporate influence is heavy) and other corporations strongly influence media messages by adding or pulling their advertising dollar. But this point is critical – as majority opinions are almost always, if not fully, formed by the media.

    3) We need to see the economy for what it actually is – an engine to pull resources from nature and give it to humans. All human economic activity directly or indirectly extracts from/adds strain to nature. We need a complete shift in thinking as towards how much extraction is just for each generation/nation/individual. This type of thinking isn’t even in the general discourse, so I know there’s no hope of it occurring, and even if it did it would take many generations for such a large shift to take root. Right now we have extremely influential political philosophies saying our problem lies in the scattered cases of government preventing extraction/stress.

    4) We need to understand that the natural human instinct towards competition will spell our end as an evolutionary experiment. Competition is what drives nations/individuals to always want more, and this growth instinct is what will eventually wear out the Earth’s ability to provide for our own desires. If a nation or individual accepts less, rather than more, they risk falling behind in material success on a national level and biological/social success on an individual level. But our options are: 1) continue this trend ad infinitum until the experiment ends, or 2) we grow up as a species and break out of our own natural instincts and personal desires. I don’t think I need to say that this is hilariously unlikely – but it is our one shot.

    Denial is the means of avoiding these realizations. But a simple and open look at the state of all natural systems can lead only to the conclusion that all environmental systems are in decline, and some very seriously.

    This is an extreme simplification, but: nations, especially those with excess material benefit, must decide if the goal is to extend these benefits in a purely selfish manner and risk eventual war(s) over resources, or if they’d truly like a more peaceful outcome. Individuals must decide if they’d rather have a Porsche or if they’d rather let their grandchildren (or even another person’s grandchildren) fish in a local stream.

    5) We need to be consciously aware that the clock is ticking. Unfortunately, our history as a species is always to wait until the last minute. Only until an issue is immediately pressing do we address it. That approach won’t work in this case. If we wait until many environmental issues become obvious and pressing to even the most obstinate amongst us, it will be too late to reverse them in meaningful timescales.

    Until these issues are addressed we can not and will not address climate change except by extremely ineffectual means (a neutered carbon tax bill that is repealed ten years later, for example) and by adaptive measures after the fact (the North Atlantic cod are all but gone, so let’s now put a halt to cod fishing).

    Sorry – it’s how I see it. I refuse to be surprised anymore by failed summits of this sort. It’s just humans being short-sighted selfish bastards, i.e. human.

  2. “Until these issues are addressed we can not and will not address climate change except by extremely ineffectual means”

    I don’t agree. We need only concentrate our efforts to enact one crucial change, and the rest of our problems will then fall like dominoes.

    I feel we need only to make carbon-free living more desirable than our present energy system. The way we make carbon-free living more desirable is to put money into people’s pockets to induce the transition, and to make their standard of living at least as comfortable as it is presently as a result.

    And this would be easy to do, as both sides of the political aisle – the people, not the vested interests – want to address AGW and both sides respond to fattening their wallets.

    The one change we need to make is to establish a National Renewable Energy Utility (NREU), whose mission would be to provide only carbon-free electricity to the public at below wholesale prices. Renewable infrastructure and distribution systems would be paid for by the Federal government (through bonds, tax dollars,, and adding to the national debt).

    These costs would be recouped over a decade or two. In the meantime, this huge national undertaking would provide tens of thousands of jobs, as large-scale energy projects would be erected at sites optimally efficient for power generation; a smart grid strategically planned and built, and homes and industries retrofitted to all-electric energy use. The NREU would pay for these appliances and retrofitting, and would supply its electricity for free to all consumers.

    The average American family presently pays more than $3000.00 for each family member for energy every year. This money would now go into their pockets. Please realize that this plan would cost about the same amount of money Americans are presently sending to the carbon industries for a period of five years. All we would be doing would be investing that money in a public project instead of giving it the gas and oil companies. We would be buying our new energy future collectively.

    What voter, in their right mind, would object to such a plan?

    • jimbills Says:

      Roger, what I like about you is that you think creatively and your approach is at least bold. BTW, do you have a website for NREU? I’ve searched but have only found blog comments here and on Think Progress. I’ll keep an open mind to the concept given enough proof. (Although, I don’t think we need to discuss its impossibility in this political climate. My points #1 and #2 above address this).

      But I also think you’re completely, and fatally, wrong in your assumption that we can continue this pace (ever increasing due to growth) of economic activity by just substituting fossil fuels with renewables and that everything will be fine.

      The main problem with continuing economic growth is that gains in renewables will be offset by increased fossil fuel use. Increasing levels of economic activity fuel more activity in other areas. Say we go 50% renewables (ridiculously unlikely realistically before 2050), we’d still be using 50% fossil fuels and we’d be opening up supply (lowering prices) off fossil fuels to the developing nations.

      I think this is highly unlikely, though. Even as fossil fuels peak in production (and they all will at some point), we’ll continue to extract and produce them at high levels. In such a scenario, renewables only provide the means of doing so. Pure peaks without renewables offsetting energy supply losses result in faltering economic growth. (Personally, I think that’s preferable – but I know I’m the loony minority there.) Peaks with renewables offsetting energy losses result in further economic growth, smoothing the way for full extraction and usage of all fossil fuel supplies and the continuation of all the other environmental issues.

      Renewables are DEFINITELY an improvement over fossil fuels in environmental impact. But they are not impact-free. They are still extraction from nature, and sometimes seriously. I was reading this today:

      Energy is the fuel for the economic engine. It is resource extraction, but it also drives other resource extraction. It provides the means for giving material benefit to humans. Even the most hardened skeptics/deniers won’t really care in the end whether we get energy from a lump of coal or a solar panel. They just want the material benefit. The goal is continued extraction from nature.

      Do I really need to go over the multitude of other environmental issues? Deforestation, overfishing, nitrogen runoff, desertification of agricultural areas, aquifer drainage, water consumption, species loss due to land usage, etc.? These are all issues related to economic growth, which are related to human desires. Just fixing energy sources won’t do a thing to address them. If anything, it will provide a means of continuing them.

      But again, I’m not against renewables, per se. I’m against our cultural assumptions, which are a certain recipe for disaster. Growth is the problem. Until we accept this, we’ll continue it, and we’ll worsen all environmental impacts – climate change and ocean acidification being the deadliest, but all will have major effects.

      I don’t think we’ll really convince each other on our positions, but a civil dialogue is always welcome and hopefully helpful.

    • The way we make carbon-free living more desirable is to put money into people’s pockets to induce the transition, and to make their standard of living at least as comfortable as it is presently as a result.

      And the only way you’re going to do that is with nuclear power.  Ontario and France have per-kWh CO2 emissions far lower than “renewable” Denmark, and much cheaper electricity to boot.  Ontario and France show how to de-carbonize industry, not just export it to coal-driven economies in Asia.  You can do the job, but not with wind turbines or solar panels; you have to embrace the atom.  Others have made this realization, now it’s your turn.

      • MorinMoss Says:

        Ontario has deep-sixed their nuke expansion plans and Japan is now completely off nuclear with only a minor increase in CO2 emissions.

        Without significant breakthroughs, France is in for a world of hurt when they have to start refurbishing their existing fleet.

        The nuke industry needs to figure out how to get plants built on time and on budget.
        Finland’s much touted Olkiluoto Unit 3 is 6 yrs overdue and 250% overbudget – and counting and has had a serious dampening effect on construction of Gen 3 reactors.

        • Ontario has deep-sixed their nuke expansion plans

          Ontario has also canned the party which tried to force gas-fired plants for wind backup into ridings which didn’t want them.  The psychology there is schizoid, and the anti-nuclear fraction bases its position on falsehoods.  That will not end well; Nature has the only vote that really counts.

          Without significant breakthroughs, France is in for a world of hurt when they have to start refurbishing their existing fleet.

          China is building AP-1000’s for $2500/kW(e).  Maybe labor costs a bit more in France, but France nuclearized the country in 12 years on a mass-production model and there’s no reason the next generation can’t be done the same way.

          The nuke industry needs to figure out how to get plants built on time and on budget.

          Let me re-phrase that for you:  “Governments need to figure out that niggling changes between versions of rebar specs are not reasons to hold up construction of multi-billion dollar projects just because they’re nuclear.”  I’m referring to the basemat for Vogtle Unit 3, but you could generalize this to many, many other regulatory issues.

          The problem is not the industry, it’s government.  In the early days in the USA, the industry built nuclear plants in a handful of years.  The drastically expanded schedules and budgets of the 1980’s were forced by regulators.  No industry can “figure out” how to comply with regulations that are changed multiple times during the construction phase, to which they are forced to re-design and re-construct the plant to address.

          Finland’s much touted Olkiluoto Unit 3 is 6 yrs overdue and 250% overbudget

          It’s also a first-of-a-kind unit being built in a highly politicized environment.  China’s AP-1000’s are essentially on time and budget.  That’s not a technical difference, it’s politics.

          has had a serious dampening effect on construction of Gen 3 reactors.

          The current crop is Gen 3+, or 3.5 if you will.  Nobody’s permitting Gen 3 reactors any more, though Watts Bar 2 is finally being completed.

      • MorinMoss Says:

        Also, based on the info at , I don’t think the impetus to build nukes in Southern Australia is as great as you believe.

        • based on the info at

          A website devoted to “renewables”, which ideologically designates nuclear as “non-renewable” despite the natural renewal of oceanic uranium and its carbon-free operation, is not an unbiased source.

          the impetus to build nukes in Southern Australia is as great as you believe.

          So long as SA finds it acceptable to burn lots of coal, there won’t be.  But when things come down to the carbon-free options, nuclear comes in at about half the price of the “renewables”.

  3. Wes Says:

    These are all solutions that apply to the developed nations, and might provide some small relief there, perhaps. However, the vast majority of the world is not developed, and is contributing to the problem with deforestation and population explosion. How do we lower our total carbon footprint as the population goes from 5B to 7B to 9B to ??? No one wants to talk about population, but nature has no such qualms and will handle it for us if we don’t act.

    • MorinMoss Says:

      I think it’s doable if we can decarbonise transportation, power generation and construction. Knock down all 3 of those pegs and the rest is manageable.

      • You forgot industry.

        One thing people tend to miss is that energy-intensive things (like carbon sequestration) are impossible if energy is expensive, but very easy if energy is cheap.  The problem is finding cheap energy that’s carbon-free.  Renewables can’t do the job.

  4. Eric Taylor Says:

    Why isn’t anyone talking about planting a trillion fast growing evergreens to remove massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere?
    Ecologists and a few climatologists have been promoting this idea for decades but the only place I see this happening is Africa and China, with excellent results in soil restoration, better rainfall and cooler climate.
    Why wait for technology and politicians? I have removed more than my carbon footprint over the past 30 years planting and tending about 1000 trees.

  5. indy222 Says:

    I’ve thought much about this as well. For now I will say – I completely agree with JimBills. Growth itself is the problem and will be our demise. And this former Libertarian is bold enough to say (a’la Indiana Jones) “Well I was WRONG!”. Game theory (Nash equilibrium studies), and the fact that sacrifices made individually don’t mean anything globally, only global sacrifices made jointly are meaningful – tell me that governments are the ONLY solution we have. But as JimBills and others point out, they’re fatally flawed everywhere, and we have not yet invented a system for insuring that the wisest, highest integrity people end up as leaders. We haven’t even got a system which makes any sane, wise, high integrity person WANT to be in government at all. Very much the contrary. I too, am very pessimistic. More so because the issue of physics time scales does not let us wise up at the last minute. We can change and make a difference instantly with respect to many crucial issues, even environmental ones. But not climate. 93% of the heating has been delivered to the oceans, and it will not go away when (if) we stop generating more CO2.

    • We can certainly engineer the climate to some degree, blocking sunlight to compensate for blocked radiation to space.  But that’s a treadmill unless CO2 levels don’t just stop rising, but are reduced.

      • greenman3610 Says:

        the groundless optimism about our ability to engineer climate is resonant with your continued faith that we’re just about to get nuclear energy right, if the damn nit-pickers would just get out of the way…

        • Do examples from nature count for anything?  Major volcanic eruptions do indeed cool the climate, and even briefly depress the Keeling curve (colder ocean waters absorb more CO2).  Humanity is certainly capable of injecting SO2 in similar or greater amounts at whatever altitude and latitude is desired.

          We can contrast the situation in the USA and Europe today with the pre-nitpicker days in the USA, and the current situation in e.g. China.  What an un-biased observer would conclude is that costs and schedules are driven much more by the regulatory environment than the technology.  As a for-instance, the US NRC has no expertise in certification of anything other than light-water reactors and would apparently require industry to pay roughly $1 billion up front to train regulators in any new technology before they could begin to write regulations for certifying reactors using it.  The newly-trained regulators would still charge $274/hr for their regulation-writing services, of course.

          Little hassles like this keep technologies like the TRISO-fuelled, lead-cooled LEADIR reactor from simply replacing coal-fired boilers at existing powerplants.  TRISO fuel has been tested up to 1800°C with negligible fuel failure, and lead coolant is essentially inert… but the barriers to using these things to simply ditch coal are prohibitively high.

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