International climate change commission raising alarm about state of Arctic

President & Vice-Chancellor Lloyd Axworthy

July 23, 2009
By: Chinta Puxley

WINNIPEG - The deteriorating state of the Arctic shows the world is running out of time to address global warming and complacency is the biggest obstacle to reversing the damage, international commissioners studying climate change said Thursday.

At a meeting in Winnipeg, commissioners from the Aspen Institute said the Arctic is a bellwether for the rest of the world. The North is warming at a dizzying pace, losing sea ice and threatening both residents and wildlife, they said.

The Arctic also acts as the world's cooling system and, without it, they say life on Earth is at risk.

"An ice-free Arctic means a very different planet, full stop," said Sylvia Earle, explorer-in-residence with National Geographic and one of the commissioners studying the issue.

"It will resonate globally . . . We have to take some action. We have no time. We are out of time. The next 10 years will really determine, in a major way, the future of civilization."

The international Aspen Commission on Arctic Climate Change is examining the affects of global warming on the North and making recommendations for better international co-operation to protect the region. Made up of prominent scientist, policy-makers, corporations and indigenous groups, the commission is expected to attend the United Nations meeting on climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the end of the year to raise awareness about the role of the North.

Global warming is amplified in the North where the ice is thawing much faster than originally predicted, some commissioners said.

Tom Lovejoy, biodiversity chair with The Heinz Center in Washington, said when the planet warms by one degree, the Arctic warms by four or five degrees.

That is threatening fish, wildlife and the boreal forest while storms are now causing the erosion of coastlines which were previously protected by ice, he said.

"The rest of the world has a real stake in what happens in the Arctic," said Lloyd Axworthy, climate change commissioner and president of the University of Winnipeg.

"Even if you are in Mumbai or Montevideo, if the ice melt continues at the same accelerated rate, your own ecosystem, your own economic, social and political system will be severely disrupted simply by the ice melt changing ocean waters and level of heat."

Despite the battle cries coming from scientists and environmentalist around the world, the commission says people don't seem to realize the danger. It's difficult to get people to grasp the threat of climate change and even more challenging to get some to care about the impact it is having on the Arctic.

"The issue can be awfully abstract if you are sitting in Ottawa," said James Leape, director general of World Wildlife Fund International.

People always thought the world was full of limitless resources, here for the taking, Earle added. Humans are just starting to realize that they have the ability to alter the way the planet works, she said.

"People are not truly tuned in and aware of the crisis that we are now facing," Earle said.

"We're dependent on the natural world for our lives. Now, we've come to this point where the natural world is dependent on our actions. There will be natural systems that will function with us or without us. But we cannot function without maintaining the integrity of ocean systems, forests, the water, the atmosphere."