As Arctic Nears Tipping Point, President Obama and Nordic Leaders Must Act

President Barack Obama, right, accompanied by Secretary of State John Kerry, left, speaks at the Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement, and Resilience, or GLACIER, Conference in Anchorage, Alaska, August 31, 2015, attended by Nordic foreign ministers, native leaders, and dignitaries from 20 countries. President Obama opened a three-day trip to Alaska, where he witnessed and warned of a warming world and issued an urgent call to action on climate change.

On May 13 at the White House, President Barack Obama hosts the leaders of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden for a U.S.-Nordic Leaders Summit. This gathering gives the president and Nordic nations an opportunity to launch new initiatives to curb climate change while supporting sustainable development, to avoid dangerous Arctic warming tipping points, and to reduce the pressures that cause climate change-induced migration.

The stakes for President Obama and the Nordic leaders are high. More intense and frequent extreme droughts, heat waves, storms, sea level rise, and floods—all symptoms of a warming world—have triggered humanitarian crises and mass migrations and are driving food and water shortages; exacerbating poverty; accelerating conflict; and wreaking havoc from Europe to the Middle East, from Africa to Asia and from the Amazon to the Arctic.

President Obama is making the most of his remaining months in office to combat climate change, as evidenced by the new and ambitious bilateral climate change commitments with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, President Mauricio Macri of Argentina, and President Xi Jinping of China. When Nordic leaders and President Obama meet, they should embrace key aspects of these recent bilateral climate commitments. For example, the U.S.-Nordic joint statement should draw from the U.S.-Canada joint statement pledges to achieve the following goals, among many others:

  • Implement the Paris Agreement.
  • Set a world-class standard for approving Arctic commercial activity—including shipping, fishing, and oil and gas exploration and development—that supports national and global climate change goals.
  • Create low-impact Arctic shipping corridors to safeguard important ecological and cultural areas and to reduce the risks of heavy fuel oil, or HFO, use and black carbon emissions from Arctic shipping.
  • Reduce methane emissions, including those from the oil and gas sector.
  • Accelerate renewable energy development and innovation through initiatives such as Mission Innovation and the Clean Energy Ministerial.
  • Negotiate a Montreal Protocol hydrofluorocarbon phase-down amendment in 2016, and increase financial support to developing countries to help them implement a phasedown.

By adopting the commitments above—and launching new actions in the three areas below—President Obama and the five Nordic leaders can cut their nations’ greenhouse gas emissions, protect the Arctic, and help secure more ambitious climate change action globally.

Combat climate change while supporting sustainable development

To curb global climate change under the Paris climate agreement, world leaders are deepening existing partnerships and launching new ones with developing countries to support a shift toward resilient, low-carbon economic growth. To accelerate this shift, country leaders will need to continue to ramp up public and private climate finance. By the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s count, the climate finance gap is about $40 billion per year short of the 2009 goal set by world leaders in Copenhagen, Denmark, to raise $100 billion per year by 2020. To close this gap, the Nordic leaders and President Obama should commit to expanding their use of public financing to leverage private-sector investment in low-carbon and resilient development. For example, U.S. and Nordic leaders should build on innovative approaches already employed by the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Danish Climate Investment Fund, and government and business members of The Global Innovation Lab for Climate Finance. These groups leverage pension fund investments and other private-sector financing to support low-carbon development through insurance, loans, and loan guarantees, as well as by reducing risk—by, for example, allowing initial investment returns to flow directly to investors.

President Obama and the Nordic leaders should also jointly commit to expanding offshore wind energy development by investing in the research and infrastructure needed to improve offshore wind power generation and transmission. The abundance of offshore wind resources in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and along the Atlantic Coast of the United States creates significant opportunity for economic development and shifting the electric power sector away from fossil fuels to zero-emissions energy sources. According to a 2015 Center for American Progress issue brief, U.S. Atlantic Coast states have yet to tap “a secret weapon … at their disposal” for curbing carbon pollution and creating jobs via their vast offshore wind resources. As much as 143 gigawatts of offshore wind resources are available for development in federal offshore areas with relatively low conflict with existing ocean uses. For comparison, the record for electric power consumption across the entire New England electric power grid is 28.13 gigawatts, set in 2006.

Avoid dangerous Arctic warming tipping points

Nowhere on Earth are the consequences of climate change more evident than in the Arctic, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. This could cause dire outcomes for much of the globe. Arctic warming is speeding up global sea level rise and increasing flood risks for 40 percent of the world’s population living near coasts. In April, scientists were stunned to see signs that the gigantic Greenland ice sheet is melting at least a month earlier than it has during the past three decades.

President Obama and the Nordic leaders can work together to avoid unstoppable Greenland ice sheet melt and other dangerous Arctic “tipping points” by launching an initiative to determine the amount of Arctic permafrost, sea ice, glaciers, and the Greenland ice sheet that must be preserved to avoid crossing dire climate change thresholds. The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme—a working group of the Arctic Council—or a newly created body could lead this work, including advising Arctic nations to set national policies and emission reduction goals that will prevent Arctic warming from reaching dangerous tipping points. The U.S. and Nordic nations should also commit to joint investments in early warning systems that use observations and models to predict the health trajectory of the Greenland ice sheet, permafrost, and sea ice extent in the Arctic. Quality early warning systems also would help Arctic nations design policies to avoid catastrophic Arctic and global warming.

President Obama and the Nordic leaders also should announce new initiatives to cut black carbon pollution in the Arctic; black carbon warms the Arctic by trapping heat in the atmosphere and by darkening and melting snow and ice, reducing their ability to reflect the sun’s heat away from the Earth’s surface. In March, for example, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, released a new proposed rule to update its decades-old regulations for offshore air pollution from oil and gas drilling. BOEM has set the stage to require black carbon pollution controls on oil and gas development. In its proposed rule, it requested public comments and data on black carbon emissions from offshore oil and gas operations and options to reduce such emissions. At the U.S.-Nordic Leaders Summit, President Obama should announce that BOEM will move to set a new standard that will both improve onshore air quality and limit harmful black carbon pollution in the Arctic. Royal Dutch Shell set aside its U.S. Arctic oil extraction ambitions in October 2015, and Shell, ConocoPhillips, and other companies abandoned all but one oil and gas lease in the Chukchi Sea, as well as some of their claims in the Beaufort Sea. Nonetheless, if the oil market eventually rebounds, these and other companies could refocus on Alaskan offshore oil exploration. While oil prices are low, now is the time for BOEM to get its air quality regulations right to protect public health and prevent new sources of black carbon pollution from any future oil and gas operations in the Arctic. As BOEM finalizes its proposed oil and gas leasing plan for 2017 to 2022, it also should take all new Arctic lease sales off the table, since the United States lacks the infrastructure and capacity to respond sufficiently to an Arctic oil spill.

Nordic countries also should commit to taking new steps to curb black carbon pollution. For example, they could provide more incentives for households to retire old and inefficient wood-burning stoves—a substantial source of black carbon emissions from Nordic nations—and purchase the most efficient replacements.

The U.S. and Nordic countries can also commit to reducing the environmental and climate change risks of Arctic shipping by urging the International Maritime Organization, or IMO, to phase out the use and transport of heavy fuel oil in vessels traveling in the Arctic and invite other Arctic nations to join them in calling for the phaseout. The IMO already prohibits ships from using and carrying HFO in the waters surrounding Antarctica. In February 2015, 15 leaders of nongovernmental organizations urged the United States to lead Arctic Council nations in seeking an HFO phaseout in the region to reduce the risk of catastrophic oil spills and black carbon pollution.

By taking these actions—while also agreeing to smart Arctic Ocean management to protect the health and safety of indigenous people, marine life, and ecosystems—President Obama and the Nordic leaders can make strides toward avoiding catastrophic changes in the Arctic that threaten people and places around the planet.

Reduce climate change-induced migration

A 2015 Norwegian Refugee Council report reveals that since 2008, natural disasters have displaced an average of 26.4 million people per year from their homes around the world. This is equivalent to one person being displaced every second, and this trend is on the upsurge. Many experts believe that the refugee crisis in Europe will only worsen, fueled by climate change-driven food and water scarcity and increasing conflict in Africa and the Middle East.

The U.S. and Nordic leaders must work together to curb the devastating effects of climate change-induced migration and food insecurity. By committing to jointly study and address extreme weather and other climate change-related drivers of migration—including drought, food shortages, sea level rise and flooding—and by firmly embedding climate change security risk management into foreign, defense, and development policies—President Obama and the Nordic leaders will reduce the risk of more conflict, migration, and misery in a warming world.

The three proposed actions above are necessary steps to ensure a safe and healthy planet, today and for future generations. President Obama and the Nordic leaders should commit to take these steps when they meet on May 13 in order to inspire similar actions from other nations and to move a critical step closer to climate protection around the globe.

Cathleen Kelly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. She thanks Shiva Polefka, Greg Dotson, Alison Cassady, Pete Ogden, Michael Werz, Meghan Miller, and Lauren Vicary from the Center for their contributions to this column. The author also thanks Rafe Pomerance, Phil Duffy, Margaret Williams, Mary Turnipseed, Vedis Vik, Morten Svendstorp, and Lauren Hansen-Strickler.

The Center for American Progress thanks the Nordic Council of Ministers for its support of our education programs and contribution to this column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and the Center for American Progress and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Nordic Council of Ministers. The Center for American Progress produces independent research and policy ideas driven by solutions that we believe will create a more equitable and just world.