At Arctic summit, climate change is inevitable and irreversible

Ambassador David Balton delivers the keynote address during International Assembly Day during Arctic Science Summit Week in Fairbanks. Greenland's Minister Plenipotentiary Innuteg Holm Olsen greets Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott at center. David Kennedy, retired deputy under Secretary for Operations at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Marcus Carson, senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute, listen at right.

Ambassador David Balton delivers the keynote address during International Assembly Day during Arctic Science Summit Week in Fairbanks. At center, Greenland’s Minister Plenipotentiary Innuteg Holm Olsen greets Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott. Listening at right are David Kennedy, retired deputy under secretary for operations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Marcus Carson, senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

The common theme among policymakers and scientists meeting in Fairbanks this week is that the Arctic is warming at an accelerating pace, and climate change is inevitable and irreversible. What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic, and what happens in the mid-latitudes also affects the Arctic.

Steve Ginnis of the Fairbanks Native Association switched back and forth between Gwich’in and English as he welcomed a thousand people from 30 countries during International Arctic Assembly Day on Tuesday. Ginnis said climate change is affecting their way of life.

Steve Ginnis

Steve Ginnis of the Fairbanks Native Association. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

“It’s not a myth like some people might claim. It’s real. It really affects us up here, big time,” he said. “Our fish, returning of our king salmon, is affected with the warming of the ocean, ocean water among other things.”

Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott said his eldest son, a lifelong commercial fisherman in Yakutat, can’t reconcile his early experiences with current weather and ocean conditions.

“It doesn’t work anymore. He said, ‘I feel disoriented in my own place.’ He said, ‘All of those sixth senses that you brought to bear from your total work experience in this field really don’t fit anymore.’”

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Retired Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Retired Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp, who is the State Department’s special representative for the Arctic, quoted a naval admiral who warned there is no sharp boundary line between safety and fatal danger. There’s no such thing as a blinking red light that warns ship captains before they head into bad weather.

“So, the analogy is there’s no little red light that’s going to go on and tell us when the Arctic has gone too far and is unrecoverable,” Papp said. “It’s going to be shaded. If there was a little red light, that red light is probably going on right now. How long must we wait to take appropriate action to make sure that we preserve this environment?”

Ambassador David Balton, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for oceans and fisheries, said Arctic nations have informally committed to not allowing commercial fishing in the ice-free waters of the Arctic Ocean. But a donut hole exists in the center of the ocean that is outside of any country’s jurisdiction. Other non-Arctic countries may want to fish there, soon.

“At least from the point of view of the United States, what we are trying to do is get all of these players to agree to a binding regime (as) enshrined in the principles of this declaration,” Balton said. “There should be no commercial fishing in this area until there is adequate science, and until there is some framework for actually managing the fisheries in place. I don’t know where this negotiation will take us. As we stand here today, this is an unanswered question.”

Inuuteg Holm Olsen is a University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate who now serves as minister plenipotentiary for Greenland representation at the Danish Embassy in Washington, D.C.

“The policy-science interface quickly can become a sensitive one,” Olsen said. It can either become too political if you have opposing agendas, which can be a hindrance to adopt policy in combating climate change. When we talk about the Arctic, there is a multitude of layers with a sizable presence of indigenous peoples that has to be incorporated in new ways of handling issues today.”

Olsen said scientists and policymakers should not work in isolation. They need to build trust to engage each other.

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