Competing Images of the Arctic

There are two strikingly different images of the Arctic that dominate the Canadian imagination.  Both are iconic.

Stephen Harper’s branding of the Arctic has been a key part of his remaking of the Canadian identity. According to Paul Wells in his analysis of how Harper worked his way to a majority (The Longer I’m Prime Minister), Stephen Harper set out to re-make Canada’s identity by spinning traditional symbols into Conservative emblems. The insertion of “royal” into the military titles, the revisionist history that inspired spending $28 million on the bicentennial of the War of 1812, and any other homage to war dead while ignoring the plight of those living with the wounds of war, and the re-branding of the Arctic.

The Prime Minister has made it an annual summer ritual to travel to our North. His core messages are about protecting Canadian sovereignty, although the enduring visual may be his jumping on an all-terrain vehicle while declaring he “make(s) the rules.”

The prime minister’s Arctic is muscular. No “fragile North” for him.     Harper declared “use it or lose it.”   “Use it” is not a call to greater eco-tourism.  The prime minister’s vision is linked to opening up resources in oil, gas and minerals.

Yet, his promises for deep sea ports, ice breakers and new research stations are now more noted as absent than fulfilled.

For example, the ice-breakers were promised in 2005 and again in 2008, and have been delayed once again.  China, with no Arctic coastline at all, now has icebreakers in Canada’s waters while our Coast Guard’s Amundsen is in dry dock.

The construction of the deepwater port naval port in Nanisivik promised in 2007 has yet to be begun, despite promises it would begin two years ago.   Also two years ago, the Prime Minister announced a major new satellite project, the Radarstat Constellation Mission.  It now appears to be mired in budgetary delays.

The other aspect of Harper’s vision is of a militarized Arctic.  In February 2009, Defence Minister Peter MacKay and the prime minister crowed about an alleged incident involving Russian aircraft.  Their version of events was that two Russian jets violated Canadian airspace, that the CF-18s were scrambled to instruct the Russians to stay out of our airspace – or as MacKay put it – to “turn tail and head back to its own airspace,”

The Russians painted a far more banal version of events describing the Canadian reaction as “farce.”

Every trip to the Arctic involves promises of deep sea ports, a satellite project, ice breakers and new research stations.

Meanwhile, there is a very different picture of the Arctic.  It is of a canary in a coal mine: a global warning sign of dangerous levels of climate change. Ironically those very policies with which Stephen Harper is most identified – rapid exploitation of fossil fuels – speeds the rate of change in Canada’s Arctic.

My sense is that globally, it is the image of a stranded polar bear on an ice floe that says “Arctic” to the world.  A politician on an ATV riding through a sensitive eco-system will not be an image that comes to mind.

The CBC series on the search for the Franklin Expedition was more of the re-branding of how we think of the Arctic. It was more Harperization of the North.  Chris Turner, award winning journalist, got into a twitter debate with Peter Mansbridge over the coverage.  Turner’s classic line was that sending a CBC film crew to the Arctic in the summer of 2013 to investigate the fate of the Franklin expedition, without mentioning climate change, was like sending a network team of journalists to Syria, as the civil war raged, to find the exact spot on the Road to Damascus where St. Paul turned around.  Mansbridge, of course, disagreed, saying the flagship CBC news show, “The National,” covers the climate issue.

For anyone who understands the extent of the threat and the urgency of a rapid shift away from dependence on fossil fuels, it is clear that the Canadian media overall is doing a lamentable job. Coverage of climate issue in Canada is far more limited than even in the United States and much less than in European media.

Canadians need a crash course in climate science.  And understanding what is happening to the Arctic is a key place to begin.

The rate of climate change in the Arctic is galloping.  It is warming approximately three times faster than the global average.  It drives up the global average.

The melting of Arctic ice had been an anticipated climate change impact for decades, but the pace at which the ice is melting exceeds earlier projections.

When I first learned about the threat of climate change, it was 1986 and I was Senior Policy Advisor to the federal Minister of the Environment, Tom McMillan.  I was fortunate to be serving a minister of the environment who was committed to progressive environmental policies; McMillan was fortunate to be serving under a prime minister who still operated a Cabinet government.  McMillan could take his concerns to Brian Mulroney, and the prime minister actually listened.  Public policy was based on sound science, ground through the lens of a highly competent, non-partisan civil service.  So when Tom McMillan learned about the climate crisis, Mulroney agreed to position Canada in the lead.

What the Environment Canada scientists told us back in the 1980s was based on modelling the impact of trapping more greenhouse gases near the earth’s surface.  There was no debate about the science. The industry-funded campaigns to create doubt had not yet begun.  The doubt that existed was about the regional impacts. There was no uncertainty about the basics – dumping millions of metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere would destabilize the climate system and could wreak havoc.

Globally, we were told, that unless our economies started using less fossil fuels we would experience more frequent and more severe weather events, that the sea ice could melt, and glaciers could retreat.

I remember clearly that Environment Canada scientists thought the glaciers would begin to retreat by 2030.  That the melt started decades sooner has to do with two things. Firstly, we have not, in Canada or globally, reduced our use of fossil fuels.  On the contrary, the emissions of greenhouse gases have climbed due to the increased use of dirty energy.  Secondly, the impacts have been accelerating through positive feedback loops.

We are rapidly losing sea ice and permafrost.  Each of these phenomena contains feedback loops which accelerate the rate of change.

Understanding positive feed-back loops is key to understanding why we must rapidly reverse course. Positive feed-back loops create more serious impacts and a potential runaway global warming process that we could be helpless to address.

Here’s the core notion of a feedback loop.  Human action in burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases that put in motion a change that itself serves to increase global warming.

An easy example is hotter, drier conditions increasing the risk of forest fires.  A burning forest releases the carbon dioxide that had been stored, through the initial transformational miracle of photosynthesis, from sunshine to released oxygen and sequestered carbon.  A bit more complex example of a feedback loop is that experienced by the interior forests of British Columbia.  Warmer winters allowed the pine beetle to grow into a devastating epidemic.  The usual winter cold snaps simply did not happen. Those cold snaps killed off most of the pine beetle population season to season.  Warmer winters spelled an economic catastrophe for the forest industry as the interior lodgepole pine forest was killed off by ravaging beetles.  We lost a forest twice the size of Sweden.  And here’s the feedback loop: the dying forest gave up its carbon.  The amount of carbon from the dead forest is larger than all the fossil fuel emissions from all the cars and trucks on British Columbia’s highways, from all the natural gas burned in our furnaces, from all industry and all human activity in the whole province.

There are two very pronounced feedback loops occurring in the Arctic: loss of ice and loss of permafrost.

As the Arctic warms, permafrost melts.  Permafrost is, as the name suggests, ground that has been – or was – permanently frozen.  As it melts, whole communities can be destabilized.

The ground that was frozen was largely muskeg – or bog.  It has a lot of methane frozen and kept out of the atmosphere.  Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas.  Molecule for molecule, it packs twenty times the warming punch of carbon dioxide.  The reason the focus of the danger is so much on carbon dioxide is that there is just so much more CO2, and, that it is much longer lived in the atmosphere.  Released methane loses its warming impact in ten years; CO2 holds its warming impact in the atmosphere for one hundred years.

Back to the permafrost feedback loop: as the permafrost melts, it releases vast quantities of methane.  The released methane warms the atmosphere driving more permafrost melt.

As sea ice melts it also triggers a dangerous feedback loop.  The loss of ice compromises the albedo effect, a cooling effect.  The white ice bounces the sun’s heat back to space, whereas the dark ocean water absorbs it, speeding the warming. Less ice equals warmer waters, melting more ice.

The warming Arctic has devastating impacts on the entire planet.  Research at Rutgers University identified a plausible mechanism by which the melting Arctic has impacted areas far to the south, causing increasingly serious extreme weather events. It turns out the difference between Arctic cold and Equatorial heat has kept the jet stream moving fast and relatively horizontal over mid-latitudes.  With the warming Arctic, the difference in temperature is lessened.  As a result, the jet stream has gone wobbly.

Fires, floods and droughts have increased globally as the jet stream slows down due to a warming Arctic. Moving more slowly, it lies in lazy loops, leaving high pressure and low pressure zones in place for unusually long periods. It is too early to diagnose the causes of the ferocity of Hurricane Sandy, but clearly the melting of the Arctic is implicated.

There is not much harm in letting Stephen Harper play cowboys and Indians every summer using the Arctic as his stage. However, there is serious and long-term damage in ignoring what is really going on in our North.   Arctic sovereignty, if it means nothing else, means– if we can no longer arrest the decline in summer ice — keeping, at least, the winter ice intact. It requires that we arrest the galloping increase in greenhouse gases and meet the commitment Harper pretends to have embraced – stopping global average temperature increase from rising above 2 degrees C. This must become our central focus.

Originally published in Policy Magazine.