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Arctic Reality: If We Want to Limit Global Warming We Cannot Drill for Oil in the Chukchi Sea

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Arctic Reality: If We Want to Limit Global Warming We Cannot Drill for Oil in the Chukchi Sea

Last week, President Obama made the most extensive presidential visit to Alaska ever. He hiked on a glacier, met with Native Alaskans and became the first president ever to visit the Arctic Circle. Throughout, he was calling attention to the real, on-the-ground effects of climate change. That makes sense given that Alaska is being affected by global warming more dramatically and more swiftly than any other state.

Alaska has already warmed 3.1 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 60 years according to the U.S. National Climate Assessment. This year alone, wildfires in the state have burned more than 5 million acres. Ironically, this is happening in a state that is uniquely dependent on the oil and gas industries. Yet allowing those industries to extract all of Alaska's considerable fossil fuel reserves would not only destroy much of its incredible wilderness but also lead to even worse climate disruption—not just for Alaska, but for the world:

"Our results suggest that, globally, a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80% of current coal reserves should remain unused from 2010 to 2050 in order to meet the target of 2 degrees Celsius," Paul Ekins and Christophe McGlade wrote in the journal Nature earlier this year. "We show that development of resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil production are incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2 degrees Celsius." [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit]

It's that simple: If we want to limit global warming then we cannot continue developing new fossil fuel resources in the Arctic. That reality is what President Obama and his administration ignored by allowing Shell Oil to proceed with drilling in the Chukchi Sea this summer. They also ignored the reality that a spill in Arctic seas would be an unprecedented environmental disaster. Or, perhaps it's fairer to say that they decided it was a risk they were willing to take. On that point, we can only hope they get lucky—although if Shell continues drilling, the administration's own calculations show that the odds are not in their favor, with a 75 percent chance of a major spill.

As Rebecca Solnit poignantly wrote in The Guardian, "There is an ugly irony about extracting oil from one of the places already threatened by the effects of burning fossil fuel—where the summer ice is much reduced and temperatures are shooting up: you make the place complicit in its own destruction."

President Obama said it himself almost a year ago: "We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it." President Obama has stepped up in many ways—with the Clean Power Plan, with stronger fuel-economy measures, and other initiatives. Those are all good but, in this case, good isn't good enough. Our generation needs greatness. Mistakes like opening the Arctic to new drilling are no way to get there.

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A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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