Drilling in Arctic Refuge to close deficit? Let’s be real.

The White House's Budget for 2018 proposes to open Area 1002 in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas lease sales beginning in 2022/2023.

The White House’s Budget for 2018 proposes to open Area 1002 in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas lease sales beginning in 2022/2023.

The White House’s budget will be delivered to Congress today. Called “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” the 62-page document proposes the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling. Selling leases in Area 1002, as it’s known, would begin in 2022/2023, providing $900 million in revenue, which would help close the federal deficit. The budget estimates drawing in another $900 million from a second leasing round in 2026/2027. In total, the Trump budget proclaims in an associated document, called “Major Savings and Reforms,” that opening ANWR to drilling would reduce the federal deficit by $1.8 billion.

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The “Major Savings and Reforms” to be made by drilling in ANWR.

The White House proposes to share revenues “equally with the State of Alaska.” The $900 million or so that would come in the next ten years, however, will just be a drop in the bucket for a state that has faced year after year of severe budget deficits since the price of oil crashed in 2014. This year, the budget deficit was estimated to be $2.92 billion. If faced with a worst-case scenario where an approximately $3 billion budget deficit becomes the norm for the next ten years, $900 million looks like an even paltrier amount in comparison. Revenues and royalties could be generated once commercial drilling began in ANWR, but that would take years. In the meantime, Alaska could have been striving to develop alternative industries like wind and tidal energy rather than banking on potential profits from opening up an ecologically sensitive area to drilling.

Obama and Trump’s budgets compared

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A comparison of Obama’s 2017 budget with Trump’s 2018 budget reveals that the former mentions climate change 36 times, while the latter only mentions it once.

As the potential opening of ANWR indicates, the replacement of Barack Obama with Donald Trump in the White House has caused federal priorities in the Arctic to shift dramatically. Comparing Obama’s final budget, for fiscal year 2017, with Trump’s 2018 budget further illustrates those contrasts.

The Obama budget highlighted topics like “Coastal Resilience,” explaining, “The Budget also provides the Denali Commission—an independent Federal agency created to facilitate technical assistance and economic development in Alaska—with $19 million, including $5 million to coordinate Federal, State, and tribal assistance to communities to develop and implement solutions to address the impacts of climate change.” The Obama budget also sought to invest $100 million across a number of additional agencies to deal with climate change while allocating $150 million for a Coast Guard icebreaker in the Arctic to tackle related problems.

Issues like improving American Indian and Alaska Native access to healthcare were also prioritized under the Obama budget. One line-item for 2017 estimated that standardizing the definition of who qualifies as American Indian and Alaska Native under the Affordable Care Act would increase the budget deficit by $520 million over the next decade. While the previous White House was spending money to try to improve healthcare for vulnerable and historically disadvantaged populations, the current White House wants to “save money” by cutting billions of dollars in funding to the Medicaid healthcare program for low-income individuals and food stamps.

Climate change or “other change”?

Another stark contrast is that the Obama 2017 budget mentioned climate change 36 times. The Trump budget mentions it zero times.

That should come as no surprise seeing that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hardly dared utter the phrase while speaking at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Fairbanks earlier this month. Reading stiffly from a set of prepared remarks, Tillerson said, “And finally, the Council has strengthened resilience at the national and local levels in the face of environmental and other change.” When the nation’s top diplomat won’t even call a spade a spade, the prospects for agreement between the U.S. with the other Arctic Council member states, let alone the rest of the climate-concerned international community, are dim.

(For fun, you can compare Tillerson’s stilted six-minute remarks in Fairbanks with former Secretary of State John Kerry’s 23-minute off-the-cuff speech at Iqaluit two years prior:)

The last few bipolar months of the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship are ending

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President Obama during his visit to Alaska, which focused on climate change. Source: White House Archives.

Two years ago in Iqaluit, Canada’s “heart of the Arctic,” the U.S. took over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the region’s leading intergovernmental organization. The U.S. sent Secretary of State John Kerry to the event, continuing the recent tradition of the country sending its highest ranking diplomat.

Tomorrow at the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Fairbanks, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will continue that tradition. Other than that, however, there’s a world of difference under the hood of the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship.

The U.S. agenda for its chairmanship, which rotates every two years between the eight Arctic Council member states, was “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges and Responsibilities.” The three themes within this vision involved improving economic and living conditions in Arctic communities, Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship, and addressing the impacts of climate change. If we measure the U.S. by its own yardstick – in other words, the goals in set out to accomplish two years ago – it’s probably done the most in the second and third areas. The U.S. presided over the establishment of the U.S. Arctic Coast Guard Forum in October 2015, which has helped to maintain dialogue between Russia and the West in the Arctic. This is probably one area in which the previous and current administrations in the White House agree on its importance. At a time when tensions remain high between Russia and the West, the U.S. chairmanship has continued to emphasize a unified Arctic. Its theme of “One Arctic” has fostered strong levels of cooperation at sea and on land in the North and continued the project of region-building in the Arctic, helping member states to see shared priorities and concerns.

But it’s in the area of climate change where the U.S. chairmanship has been arguably the most successful in galvanizing action — and where the current administration has been trying to reverse a lot of the progress made. That’s why in Fairbanks tomorrow, it will be interesting to watch what remarks Tillerson delivers. Will he downplay the accomplishments of the U.S. in this area, which were all made by his boss’ predecessor, President Barack Obama, in order to focus on Trump’s goals of economic development, America First and climate last?

If he does that, this will be a disservice to the many accomplishments made by the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship with regard to climate change. Just a few months after the U.S. took over from Canada, in September 2015, Obama became the first sitting president to visit Alaska. He traveled to the North Slope town of Kotzebue and flew over the village of Kivalina, whose shoreline is eroding away. When Obama tweeted, he directly linked his love for Alaska to his passion for the “fight on climate change” – a fight that Trump clearly does not want to keep up. (Ominously, the video that was included is “no longer available”.) He even wrote a blog post on Medium describing how touched he was by his visit.

The U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship also focused on promoting Arctic science. It targeted reducing short-lived climate pollutants like black carbon, which exacerbates Arctic climate change by covering up snow that would otherwise reflect away sunlight, supported Arctic climate adaptation and resilience efforts, and launched an initiative to create a two-meter digital elevation model (DEM) of the Arctic, which should be finished by this summer. The White House also hosted the first-ever Arctic Science Ministerial in September 2016, inviting researchers from around the world to discuss their work. Capping off all these scientific efforts, the U.S. and Russia co-chaired efforts to draft what will become the third-ever binding agreement under the Arctic Council once it is signed in Fairbanks tomorrow: the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation.

It is difficult to imagine Tillerson, who has stated in writing that he does not believe that fossil fuels are a “key” factor behind climate change, to laud the accomplishments of the U.S. in this area. Instead, he may choose to focus on the chairmanships’ work in promoting economic development, which have not nearly been as monumental. Canada, the previous Arctic Council chair, focused much more on this issue, as underscored by its establishment of the Arctic Economic Council. Already, the Trump administration has tried to make some nominal headway in this area. On April 28, he signed an executive order attempting to reverse the Obama administration’s moratorium on offshore drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, which some Alaskans cheered. However, in so doing, Trump also controversially eliminated a tribal advisory council established under the Obama administration to provide recommendations and guidance on maritime activities in the Bering Sea.

So even if Tillerson attempts to shift a little bit of the U.S. chairmanship’s focus away from climate change and towards industry and development, this has to be taken with a big grain of salt. As I wrote previously, among other cuts, Trump’s proposed budget threatens to eliminate the Essential Air Service, the Economic Development Administration, and the Denali Commission, all of which provide vital services to rural and Native Alaskans. While the current administration is pro-development in Alaska, it’s hardly the type of sustainable, local development that is needed across the Arctic today.

As Finland takes over, it will renew the Arctic Council’s focus on climate change, returning to the organization’s early roots of being focused on environmental issues when it was established 20 years ago. The first sentence on the Finnish chairmanship’s website states how the country “emphasizes the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change,” which Trump has threatened to pull the U.S. out of.

Outgoing Chair of the U.S. Senior Arctic Official David Balton said yesterday via teleconference, “The U.S. will remain engaged in the work that the Arctic Council does on climate change throughout.” The question, however, is really what level that engagement will be. With the White House deleting scientific data on climate change and trying to stimulate the very industries that will exacerbate black carbon emissions and Arctic warming like oil and coal, Finland and all other Arctic Council stakeholders would be wise to be wary.

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And so the Arctic Council chairmanship goes back to Finland, where food from its Arctic region, Lapland, can be easily found in the capital of Helsinki. Photo: Mia Bennett.

In 20 years, Arctic summer sea ice could be gone

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A summer scene in the Arctic which may never repeat itself some twenty years from now: Sea face of outside ice-foot at Distant Cape Roleson’s Channel (somewhere near Nares Strait between Canada and Greenland), June 1882. Photo: George W. Rice/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Say goodbye to dreams of standing at the top of the world, for you may soon have to swim. A report published last week by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme suggests that the Arctic may be ice-free in summer within twenty years. The 90 authors of the rigorously peer-reviewed AMAP report state, “Extrapolations of recent observed data suggest a largely ice-free summer ocean by the late 2030s, which is earlier than projected by most climate models.”

We may now only have two decades to prepare for an Arctic devoid of summer sea ice.

This timeframe is also much sooner than AMAP reports from the early 2000s predicted. An executive summary published in 2004, just 13 years ago, projected near total loss of summer sea ice by the end of this century. Now, with summer sea ice forecasted to be gone by the late 2030s, that projection has been sped up about 70 years. The faster pace of Arctic climate change means that there is even less time for communities, nations, and international organizations to design and implement adaptation policies. Where we once might have had another eight decades or so to prepare for an ice-free Arctic, we now may have only two decades. Importantly, extrapolations from recent data rather than models are what indicate that society has hit the fast-forward button on Arctic climate change. 

The AMAP report executive summary, which is written with policy makers in mind, has six key findings. They are: 

  1. The Arctic climate is shifting to a new state.
  2. Arctic climate change is continuing at a rapid pace.
  3. Warming that is already “locked in” to the climate change means that climate change will continue at least through mid-century.
  4. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, however, can stabilize change after 2050.
  5. Mitigation and adaptation policies can limit vulnerabilities.
  6. Putting these in place requires a solid understanding of Arctic climate change.

In other words, the takeaway message appears to be: Arctic climate change is drastic, but it can be stabilized if we continue to do good scientific research and implement science-based policy. Of course, as the report also notes, traditional ecological knowledge should also inform decision making.

By the numbers

You could read the report and learn that the Arctic was warmer from 2011-2015 than at any point since record keeping began in 1900. Or that sea ice thickness declined by 65% between 1975 and 2012. Or that Greenland lost more than 20 square miles of ice each year from 2011-2014, nearly twice as much as was lost between 2003 and 2008. These numbers are shocking, but perhaps it’s easier to conceptualize Arctic change in terms of how much else it affects, both locally and globally. Below are a few snapshots of what all that melting sea ice means for the world at large.

Local impacts

Walrus killed on ice floes off Siberian Coast, Bering Sea

Another summer scene which may never repeat itself: “Walrus killed on ice floes off Siberian Coast, Bering Sea by G. Madsen, June 1909.” Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Hunting opportunities will be curtailed with the loss of summer sea ice. As a recent publication in Biology Letters based on interviews with 11 coastal hunters from the Bering Sea to the Beaufort Sea described, hunting will become harder and more dangerous. Sea ice limits wave action, so without it, open water navigation actually becomes more precarious. Species like walruses and seals also hang around the ice, so hunters will have to travel farther out as sea ice retreats – and who knows where these animals will go once there is no more summer sea ice (perhaps they may instead haul out on land). 

An ice dam on the Greenland ice sheet. August 2014.

An ice dam on the Greenland ice sheet. August 2014. Photo: Mia Bennett

Unlike Arctic summer sea ice, the Greenland Ice Sheet should stick around for a lot longer. Studies have found that it would take at least 1,000 years of sustained temperatures 3°C higher than average for it to completely melt away. Still, current levels of melting on the world’s largest island can contribute significantly to sea level rise. The 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report predicted that Greenland’s melting would contribute 9 inches to sea level rise by 2100. Eric Rignot, professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine, believes that could be an underestimate

And what would happen if and when the ice sheet were to disappear? First, there would be about 23 feet of sea level rise. Second, an older, deeply sobering study called, “Climatic Impact of a Greenland Deglaciation and Its Possible Irreversibility,” came to a very finite conclusion. If the Greenland ice sheet were to completely melt away, the authors found, its disappearance would be “irreversible” even if preindustrial climate conditions were reestablished afterwards. In other words, once it’s gone, it’s gone. 

Global ramifications

Boreal forests are literally “breaking apart” as the permafrost beneath them thaws. Apart from the oceans, they are the world’s largest biome, stretching across Alaska, Canada, the Nordic countries, and Russia, where they are called taiga. The increased rate of forest fires is also burning through big stands of trees. It’s thought that climate change was behind the devastating forest fires that engulfed the boreal boom town of Fort McMurray, Alberta last spring, painfully revealing the human and economic impacts of rapid northern climate change. 

Slumping trees on thawing permafrost.

This is what happens to trees when the permafrost beneath them thaws and refreezes year after year. Photo: Mia Bennett, Northwest Territories, Canada. June 2016.

Arctic warming could alter the Southeast Asian monsoon, possibly leading to up to 70% less rain in India and Southeast Asia during the summer monsoon season. As the Arctic gets warmer and wetter, parts of the world that already are suffering water shortages may be even more hard up for H2O. 

After the rain in Delhi, India.

Summer monsoons in India could be negatively impacted by Arctic warming. Photo: Mia Bennett, New Delhi, India, September 2013.

Is there still hope?

The AMAP report’s determination that Arctic climate change is already “locked in” through 2050 may sound like mitigation efforts are futile. But they are not. The authors conclude, “Climate models show that reducing greenhouse gas emissions and stabilizing concentrations, under a scenario roughly consistent with the Paris Agreement, could stabilize the further loss of snow cover and permafrost after mid-century.” All the more reason, then, for the United States not to renege on the landmark global climate agreement. 

Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement could eliminate any chance we have to stabilize Arctic climate change.

The outlook for the Paris Agreement remains grim, however. At a campaign-style rally in Pennsylvania last night marking his first 100 days in office, President Donald Trump promised (threatened?), “I’ll be making a big decision on the Paris accord over the next two weeks, and we’ll see what happens.” It’s unclear which way the president will swing given the divisions between his advisors and cabinet members on the matter. But if the U.S. pulls out the rug from under the Paris Agreement, any chance we have to stabilize Arctic warming will likely evaporate.

Eiffel Tower/Tour Eiffel at sunset in winter, Paris, France.

The Paris Agreement may represent our last chance to stabilize whatever Arctic warming we have already caused, but it faces dark days ahead. Photo: Mia Bennett/December 2012.