The Arctic Should Be a Catalyst for Climate Action

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This week, the Biden administration suspended Arctic oil drilling rights granted during Donald Trump's last days in office, so that officials can conduct a new environmental analysis of the plans. A renewed focus on the Arctic and its importance for climate change is welcome. The region can be a catalyst for better policies.   

The Arctic has warmed three times faster than the global average over the past five decades. Sea ice, which helps regulate the global climate, is shrinking 13% a decade, NASA estimates. As officials representing the eight nations of the Arctic Council (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S.) met recently in Reykjavik, temperatures inside the Arctic Circle hit scorching levels above 30 degrees Celsius, or 86 degrees Fahrenheit. This is transforming the region, with dire consequences for wildlife, communities, security and even public health, given the threat of new pathogens emerging in the thaw.

The council’s members have a long way to go in curbing greenhouse-gas emissions. They cannot in good conscience express concern about what’s happening in the Arctic while failing to get their broader energy policies right. 

Russia, the world’s largest fossil-fuel exporter and the state with the largest economic stake in the Arctic by far, has assumed the rotating chairmanship of the council. Its plans for the next two years will keep working groups busy, but won’t do much for the rapidly warming climate. Talk of sustainable development, meanwhile, jars with Moscow’s efforts to silence critical indigenous voices and to hand out free land to draw newcomers north.

Granted, the council is just one forum — and ill-equipped to develop and enforce real climate action. It operates by consensus and concentrates on science diplomacy. Changes in policy have to come from the individual states. Even so, the group can draw attention to the region’s role in global warming, use peer pressure to push its members and others in the right direction, and be a force for change. Issues directly linked to the Arctic offer one way forward. Biden’s temporary suspension of drilling rights serves this purpose. Another example: The council set a collective goal in 2017 to reduce emissions of black carbon, which in the Arctic come largely from transport, by up to a third from 2013 levels by 2025. (The U.S., according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has already beaten the target.)

It’s progress, but more ambition is needed. The U.S. can use the council to show it’s serious about climate leadership, and Russia should spend its two years in the chair winning credibility in one international forum where it has a major voice. The group deserves credit for earlier advances on issues such as fisheries, biodiversity, and the inclusion of indigenous voices. Its members are still doing too little to address its gravest challenge.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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