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Mere days after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, another big storm is set to hit the Florida coast. Rob Meyer from The Atlantic’s science and technology team just got back from a trip to the Arctic. Today I'll share some highlights from my talk with Rob about what climate scientists are thinking right now. Then we'll look at the geopolitics of the Arctic, a region where international collaboration is, unusually, getting easier.
WHY ARCTIC WEATHER MATTERS FOR EVERYONE
Between articles about how climate change magnified the impacts of Hurricane Harvey—“We’re becoming the Weather Channel,” one of our editors quipped at a story meeting this week—Rob Meyer managed to file a story about a group of researchers who plan to let their ship get frozen into Arctic ice this year so they can study the changing environment year-round. Now that he’s back, I sat down with Rob for a window into what these and other climate scientists are grappling with. Here’s an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Matt Peterson: When you talk to climate scientists, how do they feel about things like this crazy hurricane season?
Robinson Meyer: To a large extent, climate scientists have integrated climate change into their worldview in the same way that military planners integrate future conflicts into their worldview, in that they know it will happen. They’re not thrilled about it. But they have had to train themselves out of the emotional response that a lot of people have to climate change.
There are a lot of climate scientists who are really frustrated by the lack of response to climate change in American policy. But they are researchers. They care about how lakes are in the High Arctic, or about how tree rings record different levels of moisture year by year, or how the environment of the Ohio River Valley changed after it was settled by Europeans as opposed to after it was inhabited by indigenous Americans. So when you start talking to them about the level of disbelief of climate change, they’re almost confused. They know that people exist who don’t think climate change is real, but they’re perplexed how anyone could think that. Human-caused climate change is so core to any understanding of atmospheric or hydrological earth science, they just struggle to imagine how someone could have such a worldview. If you think about earth systems all day, you need climate change. Climate change is the giant variable. For most earth scientists, the shock is, “How could you even have thoughts about this that don’t account for climate change?”
Matt: So what’s your role as a journalist? Do you see it as, “Here’s a hurricane, now more people will be interested in hearing about Arctic research?”
Rob: When there’s a hurricane, it’s my job to help people understand what we know about climate change and hurricanes. Interest in climate change spikes around extreme weather, but it also spikes around good media discussion. When Leo DiCaprio mentions climate change on stage at the Oscars, people care about climate change. I’m not sure that I’ve noticed elevated interest in Arctic reporting because of hurricanes. But there are a lot of people who are really concerned about climate change. They feel totally powerless to do anything about it. Or they don’t want to spend their time learning more about it because they think it’s an issue and they want something to be done about it. They’re scared and upset by it and don’t necessarily want to learn more.
Matt: But these stories really are connected, right?
Rob: An emerging question in climate science is whether systems like Harvey that stall out and don’t move are climate-related. Specifically, whether the absence of high-altitude winds and a generally slower circulation environment are related to climate change. That has to do with whether the jet stream is going farther north during the summer, and whether as the oceans warm, the temperature difference between the oceans and the land decreases, so storms don’t move across land like they used to. Those questions have to do with how the jet stream is responding to climate change. And that’s exactly the same reason why we as North Americans would care about Arctic weather predicting. If the jet stream changes, we can get the whole Arctic weather system moving to cover North America. (That has happened over the past two years; it’s what we call a polar vortex.) If that happens more, then you could see a lot of damage to American crops.
How much did climate change have to do with the fact that Harvey stalled out over Houston? If you care about that question, then you care about Arctic weather. Because the same forces which made Harvey stall out could make Arctic blasts suddenly start coming down and hitting the United States during the winter.
WHY THE ARCTIC IS A SURPRISING BRIGHT SPOT OF INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMACY
When many other international institutions are under threat, the Arctic is a pillar of global cooperation. A month before President Trump announced plans to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, signed a document created by an Arctic organization recognizing the need for action on climate change. And when it comes to the Arctic, the U.S. and Russia remain on good terms even into the Trump presidency.
The core of Arctic diplomacy is an organization called the Arctic Council, a group that brings together the governments of the eight states that border the Arctic. It’s been so successful in part because it focusses on environmental protection and sustainability, not security. After George W. Bush developed an Arctic plan at the end of his presidency—spurred by a changing environment and the symbolic Russian decision to plant a flag underwater at the North Pole—Barack Obama made the Arctic a big part of U.S. diplomacy. He appointed a former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard as the country’s first Arctic envoy.
In an era when Russians start suspicious fires in their American consulates, Arctic geopolitics is sometimes cast as a Cold War competition. Russia, with a vast Arctic coastline even compared to Alaska, has more than 40 icebreaking ships, while the U.S. has only two. The Arctic is expected to be largely free of sea ice during the summers within a few decades, but for now, ships generally need help from icebreakers to move (unless, of course, they want to get stuck). The commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard wants the U.S. to keep up, saying in 2015, “When Russia put Sputnik in outer space, did we sit with our hands in pocket with great fascination and say, ‘Good for Mother Russia’?” (President Trump has promised more icebreakers.)
But looking at the Arctic as a zone of geopolitical competition misses the point. “Where the U.S. does really get along with Russia is in the Arctic, and that’s a stabilizing region for the United States and Russian relationship,” said Joël Plouffe, a managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook. “It is a humongous geographical space, communications are difficult, and capacities are often important for search and rescue needs. So you put all of these together, and you understand the need to work together.” A senior State Department official said in May that “whatever other differences may exist” between the U.S. and Russia, they “don’t manifest themselves” in the Arctic.
Under Obama, the U.S. made climate research a key pillar of its Arctic policy. Russia has different objectives—especially exploiting natural resources like oil and gas—but a shared interest in environmental vulnerabilities has led Moscow to cooperate. “They’re not the first leaders on climate change, but they are very much aware of the impacts of climate change and environmental vulnerability in their Arctic,” said Plouffe, who studies at U.S. Arctic policy at Quebec’s National School of Public Administration. At the meeting of the Arctic Council in May, where Tillerson signed the climate document, he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also agreed to cooperate on Arctic science.
Now, as part of Rex Tillerson’s reorganization of the U.S. State Department, he is moving to eliminate the office of Arctic envoy. The relatively obscure position gave the U.S. a voice in a region where Russia and other states are listening carefully. Another office is in principle taking over the portfolio, but the new Arctic team hasn’t gotten any guidance from the top yet. “They're all sitting there twiddling their thumbs," a State Department official told Inside Climate News.
Policymakers throughout the government “know that the U.S. is vulnerable in the Arctic,” said Plouffe. They “will do their best to defend American interests in the region despite the fact that the actual president is not aware or interested in taking a leadership role on climate change.” But there’s a lot at stake. “When the Arctic transforms, the rest of the world will feel the impacts,” said Plouffe. The future of Arctic diplomacy is in flux, and we don’t know what direction it will take.
- Question of the day: When hurricanes, fires and other major weather events hit, do you want to read more climate news, or less? Does your interest in climate stories increase or decrease?
- What’s coming tomorrow: Caroline Kitchener brings us an education debate about public versus private schools.
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