In the summer of 2014, Jean Lemire, a Canadian documentary filmmaker and biologist, set sail in a 51-foot retrofitted fishing trawler and headed for the treacherous Northwest Passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Lemire was startled by what he encountered – or rather, by what he did not find: sea ice.
Lemire had traversed the passage once before, in July 2002, painstakingly navigating through ice-choked waters with his 16-member crew. But in the intervening years, record heat had melted those obstacles, and on that second journey, they sailed across an open sea.
“We were shocked — we had no ice,” said Lemire, during an August 9 panel discussion on climate change at the CSG/ERC Annual Meeting in Québec City. The Arctic region has warmed faster than any other place on the planet, and on two large screens, Lemire showed footage from both voyages that illustrated its dramatic thaw. During the 2002 trip, the sailboat appears to be immobilized by massive chunks of ice. Twelve summers later, it speeds across an unfrozen sea. Through his films, Lemire hopes to alert the public to the melting Arctic and its imperiled communities, and the broader effects that are already being felt around the globe.
During the session, Lemire joined policymakers and academics who discussed international efforts to address climate change, and offered strategies for state, provincial and local officials to maximize the economic and social benefits of carbon policies in their jurisdictions.
‘A spectacularly fast progression’
Scientists have attributed the Earth’s rising temperatures to emissions of heat-trapping gases from human activity. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now higher than at any time in the last 400,000 years, and is increasing at a record pace, according to NASA. This year, sea ice cover is expected to reach a new low. If the rate of warming continues, sometime between 2020 and 2030 the Arctic Ocean will be completely ice-free in summer, for the first time at least 3 million years, said Dr. Louis Fortier, an oceanographer at Laval University who spends a portion of each summer on an icebreaker in the Arctic.
“This is a spectacularly fast progression,” Fortier said during the panel. “The Arctic is warming much faster than expected. So climate change will [occur] faster, and [be] much more intense than expected.”
The melting of Arctic sea ice has already had major consequences for those who live at the top of the world. The ice acts as a buffer for wave action, and as it disappears, coastal erosion is accelerating. The region is home to some 55,000 Inuits in 53 seafront communities, and their drinking water supplies, traditional food sources, transportation and other infrastructure, and even social bonding – “all are being eroded by the situation,” Fortier said. He heads ArcticNet, a group of more than 150 researchers from 32 Canadian universities and international institutions that are studying the Arctic ecosystem, and exploring strategies to help inhabitants adapt to their new circumstances.
Shifting weather patterns
The changes in the Arctic also have important implications for global weather patterns. As the region warms, the difference in temperatures between the Arctic and areas to the south other areas is narrowing. The shift is modifying the jet stream — the strong, westerly air current several miles above Earth that dictates much of the Northern hemisphere’s climate — causing its winds to slow down and its flow to become irregular. These “meanderings” of the jet stream create unusual reversals: Arctic conditions are spilling into temperate zones, and warm air is moving north, said Fortier.
Superstorm Sandy “was a typical consequence of this meandering of the jet stream,” said Fortier. The storm’s tidal surge and fierce winds led to more than $60 billion in economic damages across 24 states.
An ice-free Northwest Passage is also opening up large swaths of ocean to shipping routes and potentially, to oil and gas drilling, which could worsen the problem, he added. The question for policymakers, said Fortier, is whether the actions being taken by governments worldwide are sufficient to fend off a planetary disaster.
Last May, the U.S. and nearly 180 countries signed the historic Paris Agreement, the international climate accord that marks the first time the global community has consented to a target for lowering planet-warming emissions. The agreement seeks to limit the rise in Earth’s temperature to 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels and to “pursue efforts” to hold the increase to an even lower 1.5 degrees C. In reality, though, most scientists concur that the accord’s reduction goals are not sizeable enough to prevent temperatures from exceeding even the 2 degree C threshold, which creates greater urgency for the international community to accelerate its efforts to keep warming in check.
This year is already on pace to set new heat records. According to NASA, the six-month period from January to June of this year was Earth’s hottest half-year on record, with average global temperatures 1.3 degrees C (2.4 degrees F) warmer than in the late nineteenth century.
What is required, said Fortier, is a rapid transition away from carbon-emitting fossil fuels. By 2030, 80 percent of the world’s energy needs to come from renewable sources – solar, wind and hydroelectric power — and rise to 100 percent by 2050. He conceded the task is “colossal.” The U.S., the second largest carbon emitter after China, produces only 3.7 percent of its total energy mix from those renewable sources, despite dramatic growth in wind and solar in recent years, and plummeting costs for the technologies, he said. (According to preliminary figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration [EIA], renewables comprised 13 percent of total U.S. electricity generation last year. EIA’s definition of renewables includes sources that are excluded from Fortier’s figures, such as biofuels and biomass.)
Solar, wind and hydroelectricity comprise an even lower 3.3 percent of China’s energy resources, and in India, just 2 percent, he said.
Though some major economies are much further along – Norway generates 55 percent of its power from solar, wind and hydro, and Canada 12 percent – globally, those sources comprise a mere 3.5 percent of the world’s overall energy mix. Fortier insisted that we have the tools needed to make the shift to a low-carbon future. “The transition is economically and technologically possible,” he said. “The main obstacles are social and political.”
The importance of local decision-making
In essence, the issue is a classic collective action problem, said Dr. Mark Alan Hughes, faculty director of the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, during the panel. On a global scale, he noted, more than half of the pledges contained in the Paris agreement require actions among state and local governments to limit carbon emissions. The challenge facing policymakers is that although the costs of climate actions are borne by a particular jurisdiction, a large portion of the benefits tend to flow those residing outside of the location where the carbon reductions were made. Hughes recommended that officials in those “subnational” bodies forge local strategies that will assist their economies the most, because they will often produce the biggest net advantages for local populations, and for the planet as a whole.
For example, policies driven by indigenous goals, such as limiting harmful pollution to reduce respiratory-related illnesses and enhance human health, will likely lead to deeper emissions cuts than policies focused solely on climate benefits. Efforts to enhance building codes to encourage greater energy efficiency, or programs encouraging electricity-system resiliency, such as microgrids, are designed to yield immediate, tangible benefits, and tend to encourage greater enthusiasm, and compliance, said Hughes, who hosted a CSG/ERC seminar at Penn last May.
He added that policies that emphasize adaptation – adjusting to the changes that are already occurring – over mitigation, which focuses on reducing emissions, might lead to greater local and global benefits in the long term. With adaptation, “one-hundred percent of the benefits fall inside your jurisdiction,” said Hughes. “If we focus on what’s going on locally, we might end up having more global benefits than talking about the global challenge.”
In recent years, 16 states — including nine in the Northeast — and 35 cities have pledged to lower their greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent from a 2005 (or lower) baseline by 2050. That pledge is in line with the “Under 2 MOU,” an international agreement among state, provincial and municipal governments that have vowed to meet strict climate targets. Hughes cautioned that despite these shared goals, it is probably unrealistic to require that every state and urban center meet the same emissions-reduction target, given that local conditions will dictate the most effective strategies for making emissions cuts.
Leading by example
Nevertheless, states that have pledged to meet the “80-by-50” goal, and have had consistently strong political leadership and local willingness to maximize the benefits of climate actions, are leading the way, said Hughes. They include California, which has an economy-wide cap-and-trade program that is linked to carbon markets in Québec and British Columbia, and Massachusetts, where a series of legislative efforts in recent years has boosted employment in solar, wind and other renewable energy fields.
Some 99,000 people work in the clean-energy sector in the state, said Senator Marc Pacheco, Massachusetts Senate President Pro Tempore, who serves as co-chair of the CSG/ERC Energy & Environment Committee. The clean energy sector is now an $11 billion industry, up $900 million from a year ago, and accounts for 2.5% of the state’s economy, he said.
“Please don’t stop going forward because you think it’s a choice between the climate and the local economy,” Pacheco urged the policymakers who attended the session. Senator Pacheco is the founding chair of the Massachusetts State Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change.
In Québec, the carbon market has raised more than $1.2 billion that is entirely invested in the provincial economy to transition it away from fossil fuels, said David Heurtel, minister of Sustainable Development, the Environment, and the Fight Against Climate Change. “We’ve been able to dispel the notion that cap-and-trade can hurt the economy,” he said. “Quite the contrary: cap-and-trade is helping to jump-start the economy.”
Nearly all of the province’s electricity is generated by renewable sources, mostly from its massive hydropower operations, which are the fourth largest producers of hydroelectricity in the world. As part of Québec’s decarbonization efforts, the province is looking to put 100,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2020.
At the federal level, the U.S., Canada and Mexico recently set a target of deriving half of their power from renewable sources by 2030, through the North American Climate, Energy and Environmental Partnership Action Plan. The agreement was signed by U.S. President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on June 29, and aims to support cross-border transmission projects, and greater energy system integration, among other objectives.
“I can honestly say that this conversation that we’re having today about climate, about our shared efforts to move to a low-carbon future, about protection of our Arctic, is one that deserves to be at the very top of our agenda,” said Bruce Heyman, U.S. Ambassador to Canada, during the session.
In some Alaskan communities, the changes are happening so fast that officials are considering measures that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. “We have a serious erosion problem up here,” North Slope Borough Mayor Mike Aamodt, told MSNBC on June 28. Aamodt has been impacted personally by the rising seas: he built a cabin one-thousand feet from the ocean, and in less than 10 years, the shoreline had advanced to within 20 feet of it. Nearly 5,000 people live in Barrow, which sits 300 miles from the Arctic Circle. “If there were enough money available, my thought would be to move the town,” he said.
Jean Lemire, the filmmaker, has devoted much of his career to documenting such rapid changes in the ecosystem, and the communities and indigenous species at risk. During Lemire’s first voyage through the Northwest Passage back in 2002, his sailboat was stuck in the ice for a week. He and his crew spent the time filming the vessel sandwiched between ice floes, and capturing images of the polar bears, walruses, whales, and other animals that rely on the ice for their survival. It was an experience that Lemire believes will never be repeated, because much of that summer sea ice is now gone.
“You will never see the Arctic like I saw it,” he said.
Here are links to presentations from the August 9 session: