U.S. Unveils Arctic Strategy while Announcing that Atmospheric Concentrations of Carbon Dioxide Have Surpassed Historic Level

The White House on Friday (10 May 2013) released a National Strategy for the Arctic Region, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that daily average atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) had on 9 May surpassed for the first time on record 400.00 parts per million (ppm) at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. The rise in CO2 concentrations, largely driven by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, is rapidly warming the Arctic.  The strategy acknowledges that “the current warming trend is unlike anything previously recorded” and that “there may be potentially profound environmental consequences of continued ocean warming and Arctic ice melt.” The document recognizes the Administration’s “global objective of combating the climatic changes that are driving these environmental conditions.” But the strategy also invokes U.S. security interests to argue that that “[c]ontinuing to responsibly develop Arctic oil and gas resources aligns with the United States `all of the above’ approach to developing new domestic energy sources.” In the absence of a U.S. low-carbon development strategy, is not clear how the U.S. ultimately will reconcile expanded fossil fuel production in the region with its commitment to combat climate change.

The Arctic strategy, released less than a week before Secretary of State John Kerry joins his counterparts in Kiruna, Sweden at the 15 May Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council, states that:

“Even as we work domestically and internationally to minimize the effects of climate change, the effects are already apparent in the Arctic. Ocean resources are more readily accessible as sea ice diminishes, but thawing ground is threatening communities as well as hindering land-based activities, including access to resources. Diminishing land and sea ice is altering ecosystems and the services they provide…These consequences include altering the climate of lower latitudes, risking the stability of Greenland’s ice sheet, and accelerating the thawing of the Arctic permafrost in which large quantities of methane – a potent driver of climate change – as well as pollutants such as mercury are stored."

The strategy says that the U.S. “must be proactive and disciplined in addressing changing regional conditions and in developing adaptive strategies to protect its interests. An undisciplined approach to exploring new opportunities in this frontier could result in significant harm to the region, to our national security interests, and to the global good.”  The strategy emphasizes three core objectives:

  1. “Advance United States Security Interests – We will enable our vessels and aircraft to operate, consistent with international law, through, under, and over the airspace and waters of the Arctic, support lawful commerce, achieve a greater awareness of activity in the region, and intelligently evolve our Arctic infrastructure and capabilities, including ice-capable platforms as needed. U.S. security in the Arctic encompasses a broad spectrum of activities, ranging from those supporting safe commercial and scientific operations to national defense.
  2. Pursue Responsible Arctic Region Stewardship – We will continue to protect the Arctic environment and conserve its resources; establish and institutionalize an integrated Arctic management framework; chart the Arctic region; and employ scientific research and traditional knowledge to increase understanding of the Arctic.
  3. Strengthen International Cooperation – Working through bilateral relationships and multilateral bodies, including the Arctic Council, we will pursue arrangements that advance collective interests, promote shared Arctic state prosperity, protect the Arctic environment, and enhance regional security, and we will work toward U.S. accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Law of the Sea Convention).”

An article posted on the White House blog on Friday said the Administration will seek stakeholder input in developing an implementation plan for the strategy through a series of roundtable discussions in June in Alaska.

David J. Hayes, Deputy Secretary of the Interior, said in a statement released by the Department of Interior on Friday that the strategy “reaffirms and builds upon” the work of a group that he chairs, the Interagency Working Group on Coordination of Domestic Energy Development and Permitting in Alaska.  On 4 April, that group released a report, Managing for the Future in a Rapidly Changing Arctic.  Hayes said that the strategy’s call for Integrated Arctic Management “emerged from the Working Group’s chronicling of the dramatic environmental, cultural, and economic changes that are taking place in the Arctic region...Integrated Arctic Management provides a mechanism for reconciling these potentially-competing interests in the future. It calls for a science-based, whole-of-government approach to stewardship and planning in the Arctic that integrates and balances environmental, economic, and cultural needs and objectives.”

Among those with a keen interest in the Arctic is the oil and gas industry.  According to the working group’s report, “[d]uring the coming decades, the oil and gas industry expects to develop onshore and offshore oil and gas resources in the U.S. Arctic.” The report says that favorable regulatory conditions are among the factors that the industry considers central to expanded offshore oil and gas development.  The working group says that the Arctic “is among the fastest-warming regions on earth” and discusses in detail the actual and projected impacts of climate change in the region.  However it does not explicitly acknowledge that oil and gas development in the region will fuel further rises in atmospheric greenhouse gases – with implications that extend far beyond the Arctic.

The U.S. has no coherent plan for reaching the Administration's goal of reducing U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases by 83% below 2005 levels by 2050.   In the absence of a U.S. low-carbon development strategy linked to both to Integrated Arctic Management and to the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, it is not clear how the U.S. ultimately will reconcile expanded fossil oil and gas production in the region with its commitment to combat climate change.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a multilateral meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Brazilian President Lula da Silva, Indian Prime Minister Prime Manmohan Singh, and South African President Jacob Zuma during the meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-15) of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, Denmark, Dec. 18, 2009.  While the U.S. joined the other parties a year later in recognizing that a “low-emission development strategy is indispensable to sustainable development,” it does not yet have such a strategy. Source: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.


Above: Oil and gas exploration wells, offshore leases and existing infrastructure are widely scattered in sensitive ecological areas in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas of Alaska.  In those same areas, wildlife already is being affected by declining sea ice and other impacts of climate disruption and ocean acidification in the region.  Source: Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning (Univ. of Alaska, Fairbanks) as published in Managing for the Future in a Rapidly Changing Arctic.

Below: In 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011, walruses have been forced ashore in large numbers as their sea ice habitat has melted out from under them.  What is a misfortune for the walruses is an opportunity for the oil and gas industry: it is expanding its activity in the region.  During a survey flight of the Chukchi Offshore Monitoring in Drilling Area (COMIDA) marine mammal aerial survey project (COMIDA flight 235 [PDF]) on 19 August 2011, observers reported " Approximately 10,000 walruses were observed hauled out on land slightly north of Point Lay" (click on image for larger high resolution image).  Source: Rebecca Shea (National Marine Mammal Laboratory, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

Carbon Dioxide Concentrations Rapidly Rise Beyond the 400.00 ppm Milestone

The White House released the Arctic strategy on the same day that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the daily average concentration of CO2 at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii had for the first time gone beyond 400.00 ppm. “Crossing the 400 ppm threshold is more than a new data point about greenhouse gas levels in our atmosphere,” said World Wildlife Fund’s Chief Scientist Jon Hoekstra in a statement issued on 9 May. “It’s a sobering reminder that the planet we know today will not be the planet we know tomorrow.”

“The rate of increase has accelerated since the measurements started, from about 0.7 ppm per year in the late 1950s to 2.1 ppm per year during the last 10 years,” said NOAA in a press release on Friday (10 May), adding that the current rate of increase is “more than 100 times faster than the increase that occurred when the last ice age ended.”  NOAA senior scientist Pieter Tans said:  “The evidence is conclusive that the strong growth of global CO2 emissions from the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas is driving the acceleration.”

Once emitted, CO2 added to the atmosphere and oceans remains for thousands of years,says the NOAA press release. “Thus, climate changes forced by CO2 depend primarily on cumulative emissions, making it progressively more and more difficult to avoid further substantial climate change.

Robert Corell, a climate scientist and Arctic expert now with the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions, told Clayton Sandell of ABC World News (What's in a Number? New Carbon Dioxide Level Unseen in Human History, 10 May 2013):

"For the past 800,000 years, the maximum average concentration of C02 in the atmosphere has been about 270 ppm, but with fossil fuels use accelerating, CO2 concentration will now exceed 400 ppm. The CO2 levels in the atmosphere will fly through 400 ppm towards 500 ppm by 2060, leading to serious food shortages for the poorest of the poor, water scarcity for half of the world and extreme floods and droughts. At current rates of fossil fuel emissions, the CO2 levels in the atmosphere will double over the maximum level of CO2 in the atmosphere experienced during the past 800,000 years with devastating consequences. At current rates of fossil fuel emissions, sea level globally will very likely rise 1.5 feet by 2050 and global average surface temperatures will pass the international target of 2 degrees centigrade by 2050."

There’s no stopping CO2 from reaching 400 ppm,” said Ralph Keeling, a geochemist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (University of California, San Diego). “That’s now a done deal. But what happens from here on still matters to climate, and it’s still under our control. It mainly comes down to how much we continue to rely on fossil fuels for energy.

Above: The drillship Noble Discoverer, 68 miles west of Nome, Alaska, en route to the Chukchi Sea on Aug. 29, 2012. Source: U.S. Coast Guard.

Online Resources:

WWF Climate Change Blog > Arctic (monitor postings via the Arctic RSS Feed)

The Kiruna Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council – WWF input.  Press release (3 May 2013) from WWF International.  See also The Kiruna Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council: WWF Technical Recommendations

Amid Rapid Arctic Warming, U.S. Releases New Strategy. Article (14 May 2013) by Andrew Freedman at Climate Central.

National Strategy for the Arctic Region [PDF]. Report (May 2013) from the White House.  See also National Strategy for the Arctic Region Announced, posting (dtd 10 May 2013) on the White House Blog.

New National Arctic Strategy Adopts Integrated Arctic Management.  Statement (10 May 2013) from David J. Hayes, Deputy Secretary of the Interior.

Managing for the Future in a Rapidly Changing Arctic (March 2013).  A Report to the President by the Interagency Working Group on Coordination of Domestic Energy Development and Permitting in Alaska (Chair: David J. Hayes, Deputy Secretary, Department of the Interior).  See also Interagency Working Group Calls for Integrated Management and Planning for a Rapidly Changing Arctic, press release (4 April 2013) from the Department of Interior. 

Arctic Science Portal.  From the Arctic Research Commission, chaired by former Alaskan Lieutenant Governor Fran Ulmer. According to the Department of Interior: “This web portal will provide decision makers and other interested parties with easier access to scientific information about the Arctic. It includes information on topics such as sea ice, fisheries, oil spill research and many others.”

Secretary Kerry Travel to Sweden to Attend the Arctic Council Meeting.  Press statement (10 May 2013) from the U.S. Department of State.

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations just passed 400 parts per million.  From 350.org.

The Last Time Atmospheric CO2 was at 400 parts per million Humans Didn’t Exist. Article by Peter Gleick on ScienceBlogs (10 May 2013).

Ice-free Arctic may be in our future, say UMass-Amherst, international researchers.  Press release (9 May 2013) from University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Climate Record From Bottom of Russian Lake Shows Arctic Was Warmer Millions of Years Ago.  Press release (9 May 2013) from NSF.

Carbon Dioxide at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory reaches new milestone: Tops 400 ppm.  Press release (10 May 2013) from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Record Global CO2 Levels Impact the Future of Conservation.  Press release (9 May 2013) from WWF.

What's in a Number? New Carbon Dioxide Level Unseen in Human History. Article (10 May 2013) by Clayton Sandell, ABC World News.

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