How do you know it's not a normal cycle? There is not exactly a preponderous amount of evidence that actually supports global warming as a man made problem.
Analysis of the total carbon dioxide emissions of countries since 1850 has revealed the nations with the greatest historical responsibility for the climate emergency. But six of the top 10 have yet to make ambitious new pledges to cut their emissions before the crucial UN Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow in November.
The six include China, Russia and Brazil, which come only behind the US as the biggest cumulative polluters. The UK is eighth and Canada is 10th. Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries and the cumulative amount of CO2 emitted is closely linked to the 1.2C of heating the world has already seen.
The US, Germany, Britain and Canada are the only top 10 nations to have made pledges of deeper emissions cuts in advance of Cop26. While the US has said it will double its climate finance contribution to developing nations, some still see this as too little from the world’s biggest economy.
Cooling impact of very explosive eruptions could be amplified while moderate eruptions have less effect
It’s well known that volcanic eruptions alter the climate but can human-made climate change alter volcanic eruptions? Curiously, the answer appears to be yes.
When the Philippine volcano Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, the resulting sulphuric acid haze suppressed global temperatures by 0.5C for more than a year. Very explosive eruptions like this are rare – they occur once or twice a century on average – but their cooling impact could be amplified by as much as 15% as the world becomes warmer.
That’s because the stratosphere (the second layer of the Earth’s atmosphere) will be warmer and less stratified which, according to research published in Nature Communications, will result in sulphate aerosols spreading further and faster around the world, blocking more solar radiation.
Meanwhile, moderately explosive eruptions – such as that of the Taal volcano in the Philippines in 2020 – which tend to occur once a year may have their cooling impact diminished by as much as 75% in a warmer world.
That’s because the height of the tropopause (the boundary between the first and second layers of the atmosphere) is predicted to increase, making it less likely that small and medium volcanic plumes will reach the stratosphere, and more likely that aerosols will be quickly washed out of the lower atmosphere by rain and snow.
Details may still be uncertain, but the science has firmed up, and we have a longer timebase of data which reveal clear evidence of the warming that has already occurred. We can now proclaim more confidently than before that under ‘business as usual’ scenarios (where we remain dependent on fossil fuels) we can’t rule out, later in the century, really catastrophic warming, and tipping points triggering long-term trends like the melting of Greenland’s icecap.
Politicians focus on immediate threats like Covid-19. But they won’t prioritise the global measures needed to deal with climate change because its worst impact stretches beyond the time-horizon of most political and investment decisions. Moreover, it affects far-away countries more than our own. I fear our current stance resembles the proverbial boiling frog, content in a warming tank until it’s too late.
We should care about the life-chances of newborn babies who will live into the 22nd century, and those who follow them. So it’s surely worth taking pre-emptive action, paying an insurance premium as it were, to protect future generations against the worst-case scenarios. We should be mindful of the heritage we owe to our forebears; it would be shameful if we left our descendants a depleted planet.
Consider this analogy. Suppose astronomers had tracked an asteroid, and calculated it would hit the Earth in 2080, 60 years from now. Not with certainty, but with, say, ten per cent probability. Would we relax, say it’s a problem for 40 years’ time when people will be richer, and it may turn out it’s going to miss the Earth anyway? I don’t think we would. There would surely be a consensus that we should start straight away and do our damnedest to find ways to deflect it, or mitigate its effects.
Politicians will only take action if they feel the public is behind them. The direct influence of ‘backroom’ scientists on politicians is limited (except in emergencies like Covid-19).
Their voices must be amplified by charismatic individuals. Public opinion has been shifting gratifyingly, but it’s because scientists’ leverage on voters is echoed by charismatic individuals, especially the disparate quartet of Pope Francis, David Attenborough, Bill Gates and Greta Thunberg. Unsurprisingly, it’s the young, who may live to the end of the century, whose clamour for action is loudest and whose activism is welcome.
Changes in weather patterns across the world have another consequence. They lead to mass migrations, alterations in land use, encroachments on natural forests, etc. If humanity’s collective impact on land and climate pushes too hard, the resultant ‘ecological shock’ could irreversibly impoverish our biosphere. As extinction rates rise, we’re destroying the book of life before we’ve read it.
Already, there’s more biomass in chickens and turkeys than in all the world’s wild birds. And the biomass in humans and domestic animals is 20 times that in wild mammals.
A diverse ecology is crucial to human well-being. But the richness of our biosphere has value in its own right, quite apart from its benefit to humans. To quote the great Harvard ecologist EO Wilson “mass extinction is the sin that future generations will least forgive us for”. Biodiversity is, incidentally, the theme of another series of global conferences with the next China in 2022.
These challenges are immense, especially as they must be tackled against a backdrop where billions are in desperate poverty and the world’s population is forecast to rise from 7.8 billion to around nine billion by 2050.
But we shouldn’t shift from denial to despair. To insert some good cheer, there is a ‘win-win’ roadmap to a low-carbon future that can stabilise our world. Technically advanced nations like ours should accelerate research-and-development into all forms of low-carbon energy generation.
Solar and wind energy are the front-runners, but there are ‘niche’ opportunities in some nations: hydro and geothermal, for instance. The UK’s west coast has a specially high tidal range, offering opportunities for underwater turbines around capes, and tidal lagoons in bays.
Although anything ‘nuclear ‘ is understandably controversial, I think we should attempt to restore the UK’s sadly depleted expertise in this area, and explore fourth-generation designs that could be safer and cheaper than existing power stations. Specially promising would be the development of small modular reactors, which could be factory-built and standardised.
We also need to focus on technologies where parallel progress is crucial, especially storage (batteries, compressed air, pumped hydro storage, hydrogen, etc). In the longer run, the world could benefit from a network of transcontinental grids to bring solar energy here from Europe’s sunnier south or North Africa, and to smooth over peak demand in different time-zones via east-west links, perhaps all the way to China.
Such policies should enable Europe and North America to reach net zero. But there’s something even more important. The faster these ‘clean’ technologies advance, the sooner will their prices fall so they become affordable to poor nations.
'Bending the trajectory' of emissions from these countries is crucial: unlike us, they need more energy per capita for their development (and their populations are growing). They must be enabled to leapfrog speedily to clean energy rather than building coal-fired power stations, just as they’ve leapfrogged landlines to smartphones.
We should be evangelists for new technology. Without it the world can’t provide food and sustainable energy for an expanding, more demanding population.
It would be hard to think of a more inspiring challenge for young engineers than devising clean and economical energy systems that can achieve net-zero for the world. And although the UK contributes little more than one per cent to global emissions, we can aspire to some benign ‘leverage’ if we can create a much higher percentage of the world’s clever innovations!
Use these approximate calculations based on a 240V Level 2 power source and charging capacity, according to the manufacturers’ websites for the following 2021 cars:
Chevrolet Volt EV: 10 hours
Nissan Leaf: Up to 11 hours
Tesla Model S: 12 hours
Karma GS-6: 4 hours
Tesla Model 3: 12 hours
Porsche Taycan: Up to 10.5 hours
Mini SE Hardtop: 4 hours
Audi E-Tron: 10 hours
Polestar 2: 8 hours
BMW i3: 7 hours
Greenland Ice Sheet mass loss is impacting connected terrestrial and marine hydrologic systems with global consequences. Groundwater is a key component of water cycling in the Arctic, underlying the 1.7e6 km2 ice sheet and forming offshore freshwater reserves. However, despite its vast extent, the response of Greenland’s groundwater to ongoing ice sheet change is unknown. Here we present in-situ observations of deep groundwater conditions under the Greenland Ice Sheet, obtained in a 651-metre-long proglacial bedrock borehole angled under the ice sheet margin. We find that Greenland’s groundwater system responds rapidly and sensitively to relatively minor ice sheet forcing. Hydraulic head clearly varies over multi-annual, seasonal and diurnal timescales, which we interpret as a response to fluid pressure forcing at the ice/bed interface associated with changes in overlying ice loading and ice sheet hydrology. We find a systematic decline in hydraulic head over the eight-year observational period is linked primarily to ice sheet mass loss. Ongoing and future ice thinning will probably reduce groundwater discharge rates, with potential impacts to submarine freshwater discharge, freshwater delivery to fjords and biogeochemical fluxes in the Arctic.
The leak reveals Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia are among countries asking the UN to play down the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels.
It also shows some wealthy nations are questioning paying more to poorer states to move to greener technologies.
This "lobbying" raises questions for the COP26 climate summit in November.
The leak reveals countries pushing back on UN recommendations for action and comes just days before they will be asked at the summit to make significant commitments to slow down climate change and keep global warming to 1.5 degrees.
The leaked documents consist of more than 32,000 submissions made by governments, companies and other interested parties to the team of scientists compiling a UN report designed to bring together the best scientific evidence on how to tackle climate change.
These "assessment reports" are produced every six to seven years by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body tasked with evaluating the science of climate change.
These reports are used by governments to decide what action is needed to tackle climate change, and the latest will be a crucial input to negotiations at the Glasgow conference.
The authority of these reports derives in part from the fact that virtually all the governments of the world participate in the process to reach consensus.
The comments from governments the BBC has read are overwhelmingly designed to be constructive and to improve the quality of the final report.
The cache of comments and the latest draft of the report were released to Greenpeace UK's team of investigative journalists, Unearthed, which passed it on to BBC News.
The leak shows a number of countries and organisations arguing that the world does not need to reduce the use of fossil fuels as quickly as the current draft of the report recommends.
An adviser to the Saudi oil ministry demands "phrases like 'the need for urgent and accelerated mitigation actions at all scales…' should be eliminated from the report".
One senior Australian government official rejects the conclusion that closing coal-fired power plants is necessary, even though ending the use of coal is one of the stated objectives the COP26 conference.
Saudi Arabia is the one of the largest oil producers in the world and Australia is a major coal exporter.
A senior scientist from India's Central Institute of Mining and Fuel Research, which has strong links to the Indian government, warns coal is likely to remain the mainstay of energy production for decades because of what they describe as the "tremendous challenges" of providing affordable electricity. India is already the world's second biggest consumer of coal.
A number of countries argue in favour of emerging and currently expensive technologies designed to capture and permanently store carbon dioxide underground. Saudi Arabia, China, Australia and Japan - all big producers or users of fossil fuels - as well as the organisation of oil producing nations, Opec, all support carbon capture and storage (CCS).
It is claimed these CCS technologies could dramatically cut fossil fuel emissions from power plants and some industrial sectors.
Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, requests the UN scientists delete their conclusion that "the focus of decarbonisation efforts in the energy systems sector needs to be on rapidly shifting to zero-carbon sources and actively phasing out fossil fuels".
Argentina, Norway and Opec also take issue with the statement. Norway argues the UN scientists should allow the possibility of CCS as a potential tool for reducing emissions from fossil fuels.
The draft report accepts CCS could play a role in the future but says there are uncertainties about its feasibility. It says "there is large ambiguity in the extent to which fossil fuels with CCS would be compatible with the 2C and 1.5C targets" as set out by the Paris Agreement.
Australia asks IPCC scientists to delete a reference to analysis of the role played by fossil fuel lobbyists in watering down action on climate in Australia and the US. Opec also asks the IPCC to "delete 'lobby activism, protecting rent extracting business models, prevent political action'."
When approached about its comments to the draft report, Opec told the BBC: "The challenge of tackling emissions has many paths, as evidenced by the IPCC report, and we need to explore them all. We need to utilise all available energies, as well as clean and more efficient technological solutions to help reduce emissions, ensuring no one is left behind."
Media caption, Tony Blair on climate change: "Even though the challenge is immense, there really isn't an alternative to dealing with it"
The IPCC says comments from governments are central to its scientific review process and that its authors have no obligation to incorporate them into the reports.
"Our processes are designed to guard against lobbying - from all quarters", the IPCC told the BBC. "The review process is (and always has been) absolutely fundamental to the IPCC's work and is a major source of the strength and credibility of our reports.
Professor Corinne le Quéré of the University of East Anglia, a leading climate scientist who has helped compile three major reports for the IPCC, has no doubts about the impartiality of the IPCC's reports.
She says all comments are judged solely on scientific evidence regardless of where they come from.
"There is absolutely no pressure on scientists to accept the comments," she told the BBC. "If the comments are lobbying, if they're not justified by the science, they will not be integrated in the IPCC reports."
She says it is important that experts of all kinds - including governments - have a chance to review the science.
"The more the reports are scrutinised", says Professor le Quéré, "the more solid the evidence is going to be in the end, because the more the arguments are brought and articulated forward in a way that is leaning on the best available science".
Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican diplomat who oversaw the landmark UN climate conference in Paris in 2015, agrees it is crucial that governments are part of the IPCC process.
"Everybody's voice has to be there. That's the whole purpose. This is not a single thread. This is a tapestry woven by many, many threads."
The United Nations was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2007 for the IPCC's work on climate science and the crucial role it has played in the effort to tackle climate change.
Eating less meat
Brazil and Argentina, two of the biggest producers of beef products and animal feed crops in the world, argue strongly against evidence in the draft report that reducing meat consumption is necessary to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The draft report states "plant-based diets can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 50% compared to the average emission intensive Western diet". Brazil says this is incorrect.
Both countries call on the authors to delete or change some passages in the text referring to "plant-based diets" playing a role in tackling climate change, or which describe beef as a "high carbon" food. Argentina also asked that references to taxes on red meat and to the international "Meatless Monday" campaign, which urges people to forgo meat for a day, be removed from the report.
The South American nation recommends "avoiding generalisation on the impacts of meat-based diets on low-carbon options", arguing there is evidence that meat-based diets can also reduce carbon emissions.
On the same theme, Brazil says "plant-based diets do not for themselves guarantee the reduction or control of related emissions" and maintains the focus of debate should be on the levels of emissions from different production systems, rather than types of food.
Brazil, which has seen significant increases in the rate of deforestation in the Amazon and some other forest areas, also disputes a reference to this being a result of changes in government regulations, claiming this is incorrect.
Money for poorer countries
A significant number of Switzerland's comments are directed at amending parts of the report that argue developing countries will need support, particularly financial support, from rich countries in order to meet emission reduction targets.
It was agreed at the climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009 that developed nations would provide $100bn a year in climate finance for developing countries by 2020, a target that has yet to be met.
Chart showing climate finance provided to developing countries
Australia makes a similar case to Switzerland. It says developing countries' climate pledges do not all depend on receiving outside financial support. It also describes a mention in the draft report of the lack of credible public commitments on finance as "subjective commentary".
The Swiss Federal Office for the Environment told the BBC: "While climate finance is a critical tool to increase climate ambition, it is not the only relevant tool.
"Switzerland takes the view that all Parties to the Paris Agreement with the capacity to do so should provide support to those who need such support."
A number of mostly eastern European countries argue the draft report should be more positive about the role nuclear power can play in meeting the UN's climate targets.
India goes even further, arguing "almost all the chapters contain a bias against nuclear energy". It argues it is an "established technology" with "good political backing except in a few countries".
The Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia criticise a table in the report which finds nuclear power only has a positive role in delivering one of 17 UN Sustainable Development goals. They argue it can play a positive role in delivering most of the UN's development agenda.
As the United States and nations around the world struggle to blunt the effects of rising temperatures and extreme weather, sweeping assessments released Thursday by the White House, the U.S. intelligence community and the Pentagon conclude that climate change will exacerbate long-standing threats to global security.
Together, the reports show a deepening concern within the U.S. security establishment that the shifts unleashed by climate change can reshape U.S. strategic interests, offer new opportunities to rivals such as China, and increase instability in nuclear states such as North Korea and Pakistan. The reports emerge as world leaders prepare to gather in Glasgow next month for crucial climate talks.
The new National Intelligence Estimate on climate, a first-of-its kind document by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, builds on other grim warnings from national security officials about how a changing climate could upend societies and topple governments.
“We assess that climate change will increasingly exacerbate risks to U.S. national security interests as the physical impacts increase and geopolitical tensions mount about how to respond to the challenge,” the document states. It also concludes that while momentum to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases is growing, “current policies and pledges are insufficient” to meet the goals that countries laid out in the landmark Paris climate accord.
“Countries are arguing about who should act sooner and competing to control the growing clean energy transition,” the estimate states.
The Pentagon’s Defense Climate Risk Assessment takes a similar approach, but from a military perspective, examining how China and others could take advantage of rising sea levels and melting glaciers — and what the Pentagon needs to do to respond.
“Climate change touches most of what this department does, and this threat will continue to have worsening implications for U.S. national security,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a foreword to the Pentagon report.
The White House report on migration, which examines the way climate change is driving human movement around the world, notes that drought and other extreme weather can spark conflicts and force population displacements — and that countries such as China and Russia are poised to take advantage.
“Absent a robust strategy from the United States and Europe to address climate-related migration, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Russia, and other states could seek to gain influence by providing direct support to impacted countries grappling with political unrest related to migration,” the White House report says.
The NIE concludes that geopolitical tensions are likely to rise in the coming decades as countries struggle to deal with the physical effects of climate change — which scientists say already is producing more devastating floods, fires and storms — as well as the political ones. Mitigating climate-related disasters may call for solutions that some countries cannot afford and political will that some leaders cannot muster.
The physical effects are likely to be most keenly felt in parts of the world already being reshaped — such as the Arctic — and in regions and countries that are particularly vulnerable because they experience extreme climate events, such as hurricanes or droughts, and because their governments are ill-equipped to manage the fallout.
The NIE identifies 11 countries in that category of acute risk: Afghanistan, Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Iraq, Myanmar, North Korea, Nicaragua and Pakistan.
The estimate does not offer solutions to the climate crisis, but it warns policymakers of the security implications of climate change, said a U.S. intelligence official who was involved in drafting the NIE and spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview its findings.
For instance, extreme weather could lead to droughts, which might cause people to leave their homes and cross national borders in search of water, which in turn could increase the potential for conflict.
“We have to think about the interdependency and complexity of these stories,” the official said.
An NIE is a unique document in that it reflects the consensus view of all the U.S. intelligence agencies. Traditionally, producing the documents can take months, and they present the most comprehensive analysis of significant national security concerns. The NIE released publicly is unclassified, but a classified version will be provided to policymakers, officials said.
The report’s warnings build on years of intelligence analysis that also painted a bleak picture. Just six months ago, in its quadrennial “Global Trends” report, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence forecast that climate change could spawn social upheaval and political instability.
In one scenario, the authors imagined fisheries devastated by rising ocean temperatures and acidity, grain harvests depressed by changes in precipitation and rising food prices conspiring to trigger “widespread hoarding” that leads to a global famine — all by the early 2030s.
A wave of protest over “governments’ inability to meet basic human needs” could bring down leaders and governments, the report warned.
In 2014, the National Intelligence Strategy warned that climate change could spark new wars over water and other vital resources that are likely to become scarce.
The CIA also recently established a center to address what it describes as transnational security threats, including climate change.
The Defense Department’s assessment of the strategic shifts forced by climate change goes well beyond previous public analysis at the Pentagon, which has more typically focused on immediate challenges such as preparing U.S. military bases for more frequent floods and rising sea levels.
“It looks at how the missions will be shaped by climate hazards in the years to come, which speaks to the strategic nature of the threat,” Erin Sikorsky, the director of the Center for Climate and Security and a former senior intelligence official focused on climate issues, said of the new report.
Climate change and China “are interlinked” as a security issue, Sikorsky said.
The plastics industry in the United States is on track to release more greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) than coal-powered electricity generating plants by the end of the decade, according to a new report released on Thursday.
The report, by Bennington College’s Beyond Plastics project, found that the American plastics industry is releasing at least 232m tons of GHG annually, the equivalent to 116 average-sized coal-fired power plants.
Global heating affects fertility, immunity and behaviour – often with lethal results – and the problems are getting worse
Sweating, headaches, fatigue, dehydration – the ways heat exhaustion affects the human body are well documented. As temperatures inch up year by year we need to change the way we live, creating cooler places that provide refuge from heat.
But what about wildlife? We know mass die-offs are becoming more common as heatwaves sweep terrestrial and marine ecosystems, but incremental increases in temperature, which are much harder to study, are harming almost all populations on our planet.
Earlier this year, for the first time, a paper was published on the impact of heat stress in large Arctic seabirds. Normally, research on species in that corner of the world is about adaptations to the cold, but in an era of climate chaos, learning to live with heat is the new challenge.
Emily Choy, a biologist from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, has been studying a colony of thick-billed murres on the cliffs of Coast Island in Hudson Bay after reports of birds dying in their nests on warm days. These black-plumed birds spend summer months perched on cliffs in full sun with little shade. Males and females alternate 12-hour shifts sitting on their eggs.
As well as undergoing physical changes, animals across the world are changing their behaviour – murres, for example, are spending more time getting into the water to cool off, leaving their eggs exposed to gulls and Arctic foxes. For parents, it’s a trade-off between keeping cool enough to avoid heat stress and protecting their young.
Many birds with similar ecological niches are at risk. Endangered bank cormorants risk overheating when sitting on eggs on exposed, rocky cliffs in southern Africa, according to research published in Conservation Physiology.
Lots of animals face similar challenges. Research shows that in hotter temperatures grizzly bears in Alberta, Canada, look for more closed, shaded vegetation, while in Greece, brown bears are more likely to be active at night. Making these changes has knock-on effects and is a trade-off for spending less time hunting for food, or looking out for predators.
Habitat loss is key in exacerbating wildlife’s ability to respond to the climate crisis. Humans have destroyed so much habitat, many populations of wild animals have been left fragmented and unable to move and find cooler areas in response to changes in their environment. Wild dogs, Ethiopian wolves, red wolves, tigers, lions and cheetahs have all lost more than 90% of their ranges.
“Animals suffer when they can’t do anything,” says Rabaiotti. “You’ll probably see a correlation between how much range of a species is lost, and how hard it is going to get hit by climate change.”
In terms of knowing what conservation efforts to implement in which places, we need to keep using and gathering data from long-term projects, says Rabaiotti. This is because impacts are often localised and environment specific. “A lot of climate change is focused on very large-scale impacts,” she says. “If you’re someone working on the ground to conserve that species, that only tells you what’s going to happen in the future, not how to fix it.”
Research is just starting to scratch the surface of understanding how heat affects ecosystems. Stresses induced by hot temperatures can cause all kinds of problems, including the growth of organisms, fertility, immunity, mortality and changes in behaviour.
As the climate crisis escalates we will need to know more about how heat is affecting populations across the planet. “I think it’s just really key if there’s a species of conservation importance that we ask these questions – how is the population going to be impacted? And how do we stop those impacts? That’s where I would like to see more research,” says Rabaiotti.
PEVEK, Russia — A refurbished port. A spanking new plant to generate electricity. Repaved roads. And money left over to repair the library and put in a new esplanade along the shore of the Arctic Ocean.
Globally, the warming climate is a creeping disaster, threatening lives and livelihoods with floods, fires and droughts, and requiring tremendous effort and expenditure to combat.
But in Pevek, a small port town on the Arctic Ocean in Russia’s Far North capitalizing on a boom in Arctic shipping, the warming climate is seen as a barely mitigated bonanza.
“I would call it a rebirth,” said Valentina Khristoforova, a curator at a local history museum. “We are in a new era.”
While governments across the globe may be racing to head off the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change, the economics of global warming are playing out differently in Russia.
Arable land is expanding, with farmers planting corn in parts of Siberia where it never grew before. Winter heating bills are declining, and Russian fishermen have found a modest pollock catch in thawed areas of the Arctic Ocean near Alaska.
Nowhere do the prospects seem brighter than in Russia’s Far North, where rapidly rising temperatures have opened up a panoply of new possibilities, like mining and energy projects. Perhaps the most profound of these is the prospect, as early as next year, of year-round Arctic shipping with specially designed “ice class” container vessels, offering an alternative to the Suez Canal.
The Kremlin’s policy toward climate change is contradictory. It is not a significant issue in domestic politics. But ever mindful of Russia’s global image, President Vladimir V. Putin recently vowed for the first time that Russia, the world’s fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases and a prodigious producer of fossil fuels, would become carbon neutral by 2060.
Fortunately for Pevek and other Far North outposts, however, in practice the Russian approach seems to boil down to this: While climate change may be an enormous threat for the future, why not take advantage of the commercial opportunities it offers in the present?
Across the Russian Arctic, a consortium of companies supported by the government is midway through a plan to invest 735 billion rubles, or about $10 billion, over five years developing the Northeast Passage, a shipping lane between the Pacific and Atlantic that the Russians call the Northern Sea Route. They plan to attract shipping between Asia and Europe that now traverses the Suez Canal, and to enable mining, natural gas and tourism ventures.
The more the ice recedes, the more these business ideas make sense. The minimum summertime ice pack on the Arctic Ocean is about one-third less than the average in the 1980s, when monitoring began, researchers with the Colorado-based National Snow and Ice Data Center said last year. The ocean has lost nearly a million square miles of ice and is expected to be mostly ice-free in the summertime, even at the North Pole, by around mid-century.
Pevek is a key port on the eastern edge of this thawing sea. Before the big melt and its economic possibilities came into focus, it was an icy backwater, one of many dying outposts of the Soviet empire, well on their way to becoming ghost towns.
It was founded in the 1940s as a gulag camp for mining tin and uranium, where the prisoners died in great numbers. “Pevek, it seemed, consisted of watch towers,” Aleksandr Tyumin, a former prisoner, recalled in a collection of memoirs about Arctic Siberian camps.
On the tundra outside town, snow piles up against the hulks of abandoned helicopters, junked cars and fields of old fuel barrels, as hauling away refuse is prohibitively expensive.
In the eerie, empty gulag settlements scattered nearby, broken windows stare blankly at the frozen wasteland.
In the winter, the sun dips below the horizon for months on end. A seasonal wind howls through, topping 90 miles per hour. When it comes, parents don’t let their children outside, lest they be blown away.
Past business plans for Pevek have failed pitiably. An effort to sell reindeer meat to Finland, for example, fell apart when Finnish inspectors rejected the product, said Raisa Tymoshenko, a reporter with the town newspaper, North Star.
Just a few years ago the town and its satellite communities were mostly abandoned. The population had fallen to about 3,000 from about 25,000 in Soviet times. “There were rumors the town would close,” Pavel Rozhkov, a resident, said.
But with global warming, the wheel of fortune turned, and the population has risen by about 1,500 people, vindicating, at least in one small pocket, the Kremlin’s strategy for adapting to change — spending where needed and profiting where possible.
That policy has its critics. “Russia is talking up the merits of their adaptation approach because they want to fully realize the commercial potential of their fossil fuel resources,” said Marisol Maddox, an Arctic analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Overall, she said, for Russia, “the evidence suggests the risks far outweigh the benefits, no matter how optimistic the Russian government’s language.”
The Kremlin is not blind to the drawbacks of global warming, acknowledging in a 2020 policy decree “the vulnerability of Russia’s population, economy and natural resources to the consequences of climate change.”
Global warming, the plan noted, will require costly adaptations. The government will have to cut firebreaks in forests newly vulnerable to wildfires, reinforce dams against river flooding, rebuild housing collapsing into melting permafrost, and brace for possible lower world demand for oil and natural gas.
Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear company that is coordinating investment in the shipping lane, said the initiative benefits from climate change but will also help fight it by reducing emissions from ships sailing between Europe and Asia by 23 percent, compared with the much longer Suez route.
The trip from Busan, in South Korea, to Amsterdam, for example, is 13 days shorter over the Northern Sea Route — a significant savings in time and fuel.
Ship traffic in the Russian Arctic rose by about 50 percent last year, though still amounting to just 3 percent of traffic through the Suez Canal. But a test run last February with a specially reinforced commercial vessel provided proof that the passage can be traversed in winter, so traffic is expected to rise sharply when the route opens year-round next year, Yuri Trutnev, a deputy prime minister, told the Russian media.
“We will gradually take transport away from the Suez Canal,” Mr. Trutnev said of the plan. “A second possibility for humanity certainly won’t bother anybody.”
Money has been pouring in for Arctic projects. Rosatom in July signed a deal with DP World, the Dubai-based ports and logistics company, to develop ports and a fleet of ice-class container ships with specially reinforced hulls to navigate icy seas.
The thawing ocean has also made oil, natural gas and mining ventures more profitable, reducing the costs of shipping supplies in and products out. A multi-billion-dollar joint venture of the Russian company Novatek, Total of France, CNPC of China and other investors now exports about 5 percent of all liquefied natural gas traded globally over the thawing Arctic Ocean.
Overall, analysts say, at least half a dozen large Russian companies in energy, shipping and mining will benefit from global warming.
One benefit the people of Pevek haven’t felt is any sense that the climate is actually warming. To them, the weather seems as cold and miserable as ever, despite an average temperature 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than 20 years ago.
Global warming has been “a plus from an economic point of view,” said Olga Platonova, a librarian. Still, she and other residents say that in light of the costly and dangerous changes worldwide, they have no reason to celebrate.
And even here the environmental impacts are uncertain many say, citing the (to them) alarming appearance in recent years of a flock of noisy crows never seen before.
And Ms. Platonova had one other regret: “It’s a shame our grandchildren and great-grandchildren won’t see the frozen north as we experienced it.”