Arctic Refuge Hit With Double-Whammy: Climate Change and Oil Development
By Dan Ritzman
Migrations are the heartbeat of life in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Groups of thousands of caribou course across the landscape as they complete the longest migration of any land animal in North America. Arctic terns appear to be avenging angels as they guard their nests on riverside gravel bars; these birds have traveled 12,000 miles from Antarctica to find the perfect nest spot and they will let you know you are not welcome nearby. And I just completed what has become my annual migration. For more than two decades I have been traveling north each summer to experience the endless daylight, vast landscapes and stunning wildlife of the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge.
Gwich'in leader Sarah James has been a strong voice for protection of the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, for decades.
Photo credit: Carly Harmon
Point Thompson, the newest oil development in Prudhoe Bay looms just a few miles from the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo credit: Dan Ritzman
A group of military veterans and military family members explore the edge of North America on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
You don't have to be a scientist to see that the coastal plain is the biological heart of our nation's wildest refuge, but if you need the numbers—the coastal plain is the nesting ground for 200 species of birds (who traveled there from every state and six continents), the calving ground and nursery for the Porcupine caribou herd and the most important on-shore denning area in Alaska for polar bears.
Not every animal present on the coastal plain hightails it out once the snow begins to fall, some have amazing adaptations to allow them to overwinter in this severe climate. On my last trip this summer we discovered the skull of a musk ox, a prehistoric-looking shaggy critter that is able to survive the deep cold. A close examination of the skull showed the spiral nasal passages that allow the frozen air the animal breathes to travel further and have more time to warm up as to prevent perpetual brain freeze. Equally fascinating is one of my favorites, the Arctic Wooly Bear Caterpillar. These are the longest lived caterpillars on the planet. They spend 7-14 years as a caterpillar before metamorphosing into a moth. During that time they spend about seven to eight months of the year frozen like a caterpillar popsicle. The three to four months they are thawed out are spent busily munching on the Arctic tundra. It takes them all those "partial" years to store up enough energy to undergo their change.
It isn't just the wildlife that are uniquely adapted to living in this landscape; the Alaska Native peoples who live above the Arctic Circle are intimately connected to the land and its rhythms. Every year Alaska Natives harvest, process, distribute and consume millions of pounds of wild animals, fish and plants through an economy and way of life that has come to be termed "subsistence." Collectively, these varied subsistence activities constitute a way of being and relating to the world and thus comprise an essential component of Alaska Native identities and cultures.
The people and the wildlife of the Arctic Refuge are threatened by the double-whammy of climate change and oil development. Look at any of the recent maps that highlight where the world is warming the fastest and the Alaskan Arctic shows up as a fiery red blob. In fact the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The effects of this can be seen and felt on the ground—less water, more shrubs and trees and I've even noticed the change in the different species of birds showing up in the high north. Most important, the sea ice is disappearing. This disappearance spells trouble for wildlife like polar bears and the Alaska Native peoples who rely on the ice to hunt. It also has caused an increase in coastal erosion and a number of villages in the Arctic will have to be relocated or risk being washed into the sea. Scientists are telling us that the loss of this ice is leading to the unusual weather patterns we are experiencing in the rest of the world. What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic.
The Canning River forms the western boundary of the northern portion of the Arctic Refuge, separating the land owned and managed by the state of Alaska around Prudhoe Bay from the coastal plain and other wildlands of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It had been three or four years since I had last floated the Canning to the mountains, across the 30 miles of coastal plain to the coast of the Arctic Ocean. This is one of my favorite rivers, delivering a wide array of landscapes and incredible wildlife from wolves and grizzly bears in the mountains and plains, to snowy owls, yellow billed loons, golden plovers and eiders in the delta and coast. This summer I was dismayed to see a new oil field development rising ominously out of the tundra. Point Thompson is the newest and easternmost expansion of Prudhoe Bay and sits just a dozen or so miles from the edge of the Arctic Refuge. With the flat topography of the coastal plain this industrial site mars the wild character of the land.
This was a wake-up call for me. During the Bush presidency millions of Americans took action to protect the refuge and convinced the decision makes in Washington DC to say no to drilling in the refuge. This place has felt safe from drilling for the past 10 years, but here is a brand new oil field knocking on the door of the coastal plain. Now is not the time to be complacent; now is the time for action.
As a wilderness guide I have had the honor and good fortune to be able to share this special place with adventurers from across the U.S. Over the years I've traveled through this landscape with teachers, machinists, conservationists, veterans, musicians, artists, people from all walks of life and all corners of the country. To a person they have been moved by what they experienced. And many of them have been moved to take action and reached out to key decision makers to say that the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge deserves to remain forever wild. A collection of their actions can be seen here.
But the Arctic Refuge doesn't just speak to the people who have had the chance to visit. Like the migratory birds, the idea, the wildness and spirit of the Arctic Refuge touches people in every state and over the years millions of Americans have let it be known that the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is too special to drill; it deserves permanent protection.
Now is the time, before the oil fields creep one inch closer to this treasured landscape, to raise our voices and protect the this place once and for all.
Dan Ritzman is the Alaska program director for Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign.
By Victoria Masterson
Using one of the world's problems to solve another is the philosophy behind a Norwegian start-up's mission to develop affordable housing from 100% recycled plastic.
Sustainable Homes<p>UN-Habitat says an <a href="https://unhabitat.org/un-habitat-aims-to-use-plastic-waste-to-support-housing-for-all" target="_blank">estimated 60% of people living in urban areas of Africa are in informal settlements</a>. At the same time, between 1990 and 2017, African countries imported around 230 metric tonnes of plastic, "which mostly ended up in dump sites creating a massive environmental challenge," the agency adds.</p><p>UN-Habitat deputy executive director, Victor Kisob, said the aim of the partnership with Othalo was to "promote adequate, sustainable and affordable housing for all."</p>
Artist's impression of an Othalo community, imagined by architect Julien De Smedt. Othalo<p>Othalo's process involves shredding plastic waste and mixing it with other elements, including non-flammable materials. Components are used to build up to four floors, with a home of 60 square metres using eight tons of recycled plastic. A factory with one production line can produce 2,800 housing units annually.</p><p>Following successful laboratory tests, Othalo's factory in Estonia has started producing components to build three demonstration homes for Kenya's capital, Nairobi; Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon and Dakar, the capital of Senegal.</p><p>Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti has been developing and testing the technology since 2016 in partnership with <a href="https://www.sintef.no/en/" target="_blank">SINTEF</a>, a 70-year-old independent research organization in Trondheim, Norway, and experts at Norway's <a href="https://en.uit.no/startsida" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Tromsø</a>.</p>
Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti. Othalo<p>Almost <a href="https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html" target="_blank">seven out of every 10 people in the world are expected to live in urban areas by 2050</a>. More than 90% of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.</p><p>"In the absence of effective urban planning, the consequences of this rapid urbanization will be dramatic," UN-Habitat warns.</p><p>Lack of proper housing and growth of slums, inadequate and outdated infrastructure, escalating poverty and unemployment, and pollution and health issues, are just some of the effects.</p><p>Mindsets, policies, and approaches towards urbanization need to change for the growth of cities and urban areas to be turned into opportunities that will leave nobody behind, UN-Habitat says.</p>
Pioneers of Change<p>Reimagining cities and communities for greater resilience and sustainability was a key topic at the<a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020" target="_blank"> World Economic Forum's Pioneers of Change Summit 2020</a>.</p><p>The digital event brought together innovators and stakeholders from around the world to explore solutions to the challenges facing enterprises, governments and society.</p><p>Opening the summit, <a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020/sessions/opening-plenary-8f731cbc65" target="_blank">Stephan Mergenthaler, the Forum's Head of Strategic Intelligence and a member of the Executive Committee</a>, said: "We need to change the way we produce, the way we live and interact in our cities to make this transition to net-zero emissions a reality…</p><p>"And as this year has illustrated so dramatically, we need to make every effort that we keep populations healthy, if we want to avoid jeopardizing all this progress."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/un-africa-recycled-plastic-housing/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649069252#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
Creating a Global Sustainable Transition<p>How the world recovers from COVID-19's economic damage could help drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix.</p><p>Nearly one-third of Europe's US$2 trillion economic relief package <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/eu-approves-biggest-green-stimulus-in-history-with-572-billion-plan" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">involves investments that are also good for the climate</a>. The European Union is also strengthening its 2030 climate targets, though each country's energy and climate plans will be critical for successfully implementing them. The <a href="https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Biden plan</a> – including a $2 trillion commitment to developing sustainable energy and infrastructure – is aligned with a global energy transition, but its implementation is also uncertain.</p><p>Once Biden takes office, Kerry will be joining ongoing <a href="https://www.un.org/en/conferences/energy2021/about#:%7E:text=The%20overarching%20goal%20of%20the,2030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development.&text=Accelerate%20delivery%20of%20United%20Nations,related%20issues%20at%20all%20levels." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high-level discussions on the energy transition</a> at the U.N. General Assembly and other gatherings of international leaders. With the U.S. no longer obstructing work on climate issues, the G-7 and G-20 have more potential for progress on energy and climate.</p><p>Lots of technical details still need to be worked out, including international trade frameworks and standards that can help countries lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming in check. <a href="https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon pricing</a> and <a href="https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-can-europe-get-carbon-border-adjustment-right" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon border adjustment taxes</a>, which create incentive for companies to reduce emissions, may be part of it. A consistent and comprehensive set of national energy transition plans will also be needed.</p><p>The global shift to <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/A-New-World-The-Geopolitics-of-the-Energy-Transformation" target="_blank">clean energy will also have geopolitical implications for countries and regions</a>, and this will have a profound impact on wider international relations. Kerry, with his experience as secretary of state in the Obama administration, and Biden's plan to make the climate envoy position part of the National Security Council, may help mend these relations. In doing so, the U.S. may again join the wider community of countries willing to lead.</p>
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By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.