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Thursday, October 10, 2013
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At Yale, Arctic Leader Speaks on the Greatest Global Threat of Our Time

By Guest Author, Verner Wilson, III, Yale F&ES '15

We don’t often talk about American communities falling into the ocean, what it means for an entire ocean to lose 75 percent of its summer sea-ice volume, or of extreme weather events like super-storm Sandy becoming the norm. Yet on September 24, in front of a crowd of over one hundred Yale students, faculty, and members of the public, Fran Ulmer, the chair of the US Arctic Research Commission, addressed these issues as the new reality in a changing world.

Fran Ulmer’s talk launched the fall speaker series From Mitigation to Adaptation: Regional Responses to Climate Change, co-hosted by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Yale Climate and Energy Institute. In her lecture, “What Happens in the Arctic Doesn’t Stay in the Arctic,” the former Lieutenant Governor of Alaska and member of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill explained her current work for the US Arctic Research Commission. The Commission is a federal agency created in 1984 by Congress to help protect this remote and mysterious region by directing and coordinating Arctic research. (Photo: Danielle Lehle)

Ulmer explained that Alaskan communities have already experienced warmer weather. Many schools, homes, and other infrastructure have already suffered from the impacts of thawing permafrost. The loss of sea-ice that usually protects Arctic villages against the cruel waves of the open ocean has also increased coastal erosion, putting seaside communities at risk. Arctic sea-ice has gotten so low, she said, that the Arctic has lost 75 percent of its entire volume of summer-sea ice since 1980.

One of the consequences from this loss of volume is a change in the atmospheric jet stream that regulates weather. The alteration of the jet stream is likely to cause more intense storms and extreme events in places around the world, including the US East Coast. What happens in the Arctic truly doesn’t stay in the Arctic. Ulmer highlighted the importance and relevance of the Arctic to Americans from all climates, reminding the audience that the US is an Arctic nation – whether or not it understands itself as such. Ms. Ulmer said that this lack of understanding means research projects in the Arctic are insufficiently funded.

Funding to help Arctic communities adapt to a changing world is even more lacking, and it affects the millions of people and wildlife living in the Arctic.  Ms. Ulmer’s speech underscored the fact that Alaskans like myself have already suffered the impacts of climate change, and we need proper research and preparation to reduce the threats climate change poses to our communities in Alaska.  While I was in high school, as part of a group called Alaska Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA), I was moved by the experience of my peers, who told stories about how their villages and towns were experiencing changes. I knew that it was the youth of Alaska who were going to be most affected by climate change in the future, and as the leaders of tomorrow we had to take action. As a result, AYEA started a climate change educational initiative directed at our peers throughout the state, and a corresponding petition to our elected officials demanding that they also take action on climate change. We got over 5,000 Alaska high school students from over 105 Alaskan communities to sign the petition and as a result, our elected officials vowed to take action. Some went from naysayers of climate change to co-sponsoring legislation to help with the adaptation and mitigation of climate change.

I continued my outreach and activism on climate change while in college as a presenter with the Climate Project, and during my professional career at the World Wildlife Fund in Alaska. After years of doing this work, it is humbling to know that leaders like Ms. Ulmer understand the important research needs for the adaptation and mitigation of climate change and are advocating this to federal agencies.

Adapting physically to a changing climate is only one of the challenges. Our research, priorities, and regulations must also evolve to address the challenges this new reality brings. Ms. Ulmer urged the US to catch up with the other seven Arctic nations and develop a comprehensive climate action plan for America’s Arctic. For example, many nations in Europe have already adopted comprehensive plans for adaptation to climate change. A website by the European Environment Agency is a useful tool that shows what initiatives each country have taken or will take for climate adaptation. For example, Finland adopted a comprehensive plan that includes resources for its citizens to obtain climate change information, and a step-by-step guide to support adaptation and mitigation strategies from the municipal level to the small business level.

It will be interesting to see if our leaders in the US heed the advice of policy experts such as Ms. Ulmer and others in the near future. Organizations such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington, D.C.-based bipartisan policy think-tank, have come up with specific recommendations for the US, including adopting the United National Convention on Law of the Sea Treaty, appointing an Arctic Ambassador, and improving interagency cooperation on the Arctic. In 2015, the US will take the reigns as chair of the Arctic Council, an international forum between all eight Arctic nations with a mission to help foster a dialogue on Arctic issues. Ms. Ulmer and the CSIS argue that in order for the US to be more credible as chair of the Arctic Council, it should adopt these recommendations.

Further, international figures, including President Obama, are hoping to enact a big global climate change agreement in 2015 to strengthen efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What leadership role will the US play during these two global opportunities? As Ms. Ulmer said in her speech, Americans should think about what our responsibility is as an Arctic Nation.  President Obama, the leader of the second largest carbon-dioxide-emitting country in the world, has stated that climate change is the greatest global threat of our time, and that a great deal of work remains to solve this problem. It will be interesting to see if actions will speak louder than words within the next two years.

For more information on the US Arctic Research Commission and updates on the latest Arctic research, you can subscribe to the US Arctic Research Commission’s daily Arctic Update newsletter at www.arctic.gov. The newsletter covers Arctic updates from around the world, including news from places such as Russia and Greenland. The Research Commission’s site also includes an Arctic Science Portal, a tool on research projects in the Arctic, and facilitates networking among those doing related work in this region. These are small, important steps to help make a difference on climate change impacts to the Arctic.

For more from Fran Ulmer, listen to her podcasts interviews here and here

Verner Wilson, III is a first-year Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is originally from Bristol Bay, Alaska, and obtained a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies in 2008 from Brown University. He previously worked for the World Wildlife Fund, as well as a coalition of Alaska Native tribes, on issues related to sustainable wild salmon fisheries, environmental justice, mining, oil and gas, and climate change.

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