We’re going to say something potentially controversial: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was right when he said that melting sea ice presents new opportunities for trade and economic opportunities.
“The Arctic is at the forefront of opportunity and abundance,” Pompeo said at an Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting last week. The council is an intergovernmental promoting cooperation and coordination among the countries that surround the arctic region.
“Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade,” he added. “This could potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days.”
“Arctic sea lanes could become the 21st century Suez and Panama Canals,” Pompeo said.
In addition to new trade routes, Pompeo noted that the Arctic contains large amounts of oil and gas, minerals and lots of fish. These are all accurate assessments, but they aren’t the full story.
The problem with his speech in Finland was that Pompeo didn’t counterbalance this positive outlook with the dire warning from scientists about the consequences of climate change. The secretary never mentioned climate change, although he briefly mentioned the Trump administration’s work to reduce carbon emissions.
New trade routes through the Arctic are an economic opportunity. But they are only possible because of warming temperatures and melting ice, which isn’t all good. The economic opportunities could be meaningless in the long run if large swaths of the planet are underwater or become so hot that no one can survive there.
That is one of the challenges of climate change for leaders: There can be benefits — often localized and short term — from a warming planet. Growing seasons in Maine may be extended, along with the summer tourist season, for example. But these benefits are likely to be overwhelmed over time by the negative consequences of more frequent and damaging storms, rising sea levels and temperatures, and the human displacements that result if we don’t take significant steps to reduce the emissions of heat-trapping gases.
Downplaying — or worse, completely disregarding — the consequences of unchecked climate change is likely to be disastrous. That’s why it is especially distressing that the U.S. pressured council members to remove references to climate change in a statement from the council outlining its priorities.
Pompeo’s speech came on the same day that a United Nations scientific panel issued a report warning that human activity — including burning fossil fuels and destroying wildlife habitat — threatens the survival of one-eighth of the planet’s species. Without changes, 1 million species are threatened with extinction, many more than at any time in the past, the report warned.
“The overwhelming evidence of the [Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services] Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” IPBES Chair Sir Robert Watson, a chemist who worked for NASA and has chaired numerous international panels on climate change, said in a statement. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
The biodiversity assessment is one of hundreds of reports, some done by the Pentagon and other U.S. agencies, that call attention to the urgent need for changes in human behavior to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. After 13 agencies within the Trump administration warned late last year that climate change will have devastating consequences on the U.S. and the world, President Donald Trump, long a denier of climate change said, “I don’t believe it.”
Earlier this week, David Bernhardt, secretary of the department of interior, which manages federal lands, told an incredulous Rep. Chellie Pingree and other members of a House Appropriations subcommittee on the interior that considering climate change wasn’t part of his job. Heat waves, floods, insect pests and other consequences of climate change are already damaging national parks while oil and gas drilling on federal lands contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and feeds our addiction to fossil fuels.
In the absence of national policy to address climate change, states, including Maine, are taking their own steps. Gov. Janet Mills, for example, has created a climate council and set targets for increasing renewable energy use in Maine. While these are important steps, they don’t replace federal leadership to promote understanding of all the consequences of climate change and to compel action to mitigate the worst consequences.