Leah Donahey and Subhankar Banerjee on the US Chairmanship of the Arctic Council and how they might advise President Obama
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BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: My Department of Interior has put forward a comprehensive plan to make sure that we’re protecting the refuge and that we’re designating new areas, including both coastal plains, for preservation. And I’m going to be calling on Congress to make sure that they take it one step further, designating it as a wilderness, so that we can make sure that this amazing wonder is preserved for future generations. ~~~ SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: There is new and renewed interest by various sectors of society on the Arctic, and this segment is focused on that. Joining us from Port Townsend, Washington, is Subhankar Banerjee. Subhankar is an environmental and humanities scholar and activist. He founded ClimateStorytellers.org. And he’s the editor of the anthology Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point. And we’re also joined by Leah Donahey. She is a senior campaign director for the Alaska Wilderness League’s Arctic Oceans campaign to protect the ocean from oil and gas development. Thank you both for joining us. SUBHANKAR BANERJEE, EDITOR, ARCTIC VOICES: RESISTANCE AT THE TIPPING POINT: Thanks for having me. LEAH DONAHEY, SENIOR CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR, ALASKA WILDERNESS LEAGUE: Thanks for having me. PERIES: So let me start with you, Leah, in this segment. What is this particular interest in the Arctic suddenly? And maybe it’s not so suddenly. DONAHEY: Yeah. I would have to say it’s not so suddenly, as I’ve been working on these issues for several years now, and I would say on the United States side, the U.S. is about to take over chairmanship of the Arctic Council in April. And so, within the administration there has been lots of interest to more specifically defined U.S. policy on these issues. In fact, Secretary Kerry has made lots of recent announcements about focusing on climate change at the Arctic Council level, in addition issues around how to deal with what’s happening in the Arctic when it comes to climate emitters like black carbon have been at the forefront of these issues. We’ve also seen over the last several years many countries are positioning themselves when it comes to what types of activities they’re going to allow in the Arctic, especially in light of all the climate reports that have come out over the last year, even in the U.S., where we’re seeing that Alaska is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the country. So the climate change impacts we’re feeling across the country were–also are really dependent on what happens in the Arctic. And Shell has aggressively been trying to drill in this area for many years. But there are renewed interests. Last week, Shell announced their renewed interest in trying to drill in 2015. And so I think even with gas prices where they are, we’re seeing commitments from oil companies, interest from across the world, and the U.S. is taking an important leadership role, and we hope that they really do focus on addressing climate change and not allowing risky drilling in this area. PERIES: Subhankar, your take on why there’s so much interest in the Arctic. BANERJEE: There are actually a whole bunch of interrelated issues here. First of all, the commercial exploitation of the Arctic Ocean. Interest for commercial exploitation in the Arctic the ocean is nothing new. Western nations have been doing this for more than four centuries with regard to whaling, commercial whaling. That stopped in the 1920s. And then there was about half a century [when] no commercial activities took place in the Arctic Ocean. What that allowed is these species, a lot of the sentinel species, to recover their population from the brink of extinction. And let me share–we always talk about bad news in the fighting and whatnot. Let me share at least some good news, that the bowhead whale that was driven to near extinction is actually increasing slightly each year. Their population is now–in the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea, is almost 17,000. The bowhead is increasing, the beluga is increasing, the gray whale is also increasing, so that there is an enormous amount of biological good things going on. So it’ll be almost unthinkable to then go mess it up again. And so we keep talking about the climate change, but there are two other things that we should pay attention to. Of course, there is a lot of public knowledge that the Arctic is warming at a rate of two to three times than the global average. The ice cap is melting at a rapid rate. The sea ice is vanishing at an astounding rate. All of that is having tremendous local, ecological, and global impact. But there are two things that we are not paying attention. One is that the Arctic Ocean is also acidifying at a pretty significant rate. And this is related to the climate change. But what public do not know about is that the cold water absorbs carbon dioxide at a faster rate than warmer water. Combine that with the melting of these ice sheets and the glaciers in the Arctic are pushing a lot of fresh water into the Arctic Ocean, thereby inhibiting its capacity to kind of counter some of that acidification. But that’s not happening. So those two factors combined–both coming from climate change, of course–is actually acidifying the Arctic Ocean at a rate that is–over time will become faster than the global average. So not only climate change, but ocean acidification will also be faster. So why are we then pushing for exploitation of the Arctic? So there are two factors here. One is oil and gas, which, of course, as we discussed in the first segment, is quite dangerous, because any spill that happens anywhere in the Arctic Ocean will move all over the place, and there is no proven technology to contain an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean. It’s an extremely harsh place. The ice conditions are terrible. Then you come in also the commercial traffic, because commercial traffic to the Arctic Ocean is increasing as well as commercial tourism. So all of that–there is these tremendous contradictions going on. And to give another credit to President Obama is last week or just before last week, or maybe last week, is that administration also announced a comprehensive management plan for the U.S. Arctic. And that also could be welcomed so that all federal agencies in partnership with tribal organizations and NGOs, environmental NGOs, can now work together to develop more of a comprehensive management plan. So our hope is that at a time when this species–. Oh, by the way, I forget the other organization, Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna, which is an arm of the Arctic Council also, they have published some major reports, including the Arctic biodiversity assessment that came out also last year or 2013. So at a time when Arctic biodiversity and also the cultural richness is actually really good, despite the fact that there is climate change going on, we should not be messing it up again, as it was done during the commercial welling era. PERIES: Right. So all of this is going on, some positive, some negative. But what other measures that really need to be taken in order to really stop the ice caps from melting? I know it’s a tall order, but what do you two advise if you were on the advisory council of President Obama? I’ll start with you, Leah. DONAHEY: Well, I would first advise, if I was on that advisory council, that there are certain areas in the U.S. and worldwide that are just too special to bring more fossil fuels. We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. I’d secondly advise that he instructs Secretary Kerry to really work at the Arctic Council level to make sure that there is cooperation on moving forward with climate change, and in particular making sure that there’s agreement on black carbon regulations, ’cause it is just so important that the Arctic nations come together on that. And third, we would say that climate change in particular makes this urgent and drastic, and that his agenda for climate change, this should be included in it. The Arctic needs to be a bigger piece of that pie. PERIES: And, Subhankar, your advice to President Obama? DONAHEY: Pretty much I’d repeat what Leah is saying, that the climate change impact is so severe. And if we disintegrate the Arctic, as I’ve argued again and again, we would be really making the whole planet, put the whole planet into a very precarious state. So while we are getting all this tremendous scientific knowledge, which, again, the U.S. and other countries are now working on–great scientific work coming out–that we should really pay attention to all the science that is coming out that the president should take seriously: do not drill in the Arctic Ocean. That’s a beginning. And Secretary Kerry, as the leader of the Arctic Council, can dictate some of these policies that we should not be messing up the Arctic Ocean through oil and gas drilling. Also that–control the vehicular traffic through the Arctic Ocean, because the vehicular traffic bring in all sorts of problems. Primarily it is about various effluents that get discharged into the marine environment, which is highly toxic. Secondly, and really important, is industrial noise from those vehicular traffic, whether it’s to move stuff around or commercial tourism, is very detrimental to marine life. So, as part of the Arctic Council, as the chair, U.S. can play a significant role in deciding what kind of vehicular traffic they would allow or not allow. So that’s the second thing. And then, globally speaking, like, you are talking about stopping the Arctic ice cap to melt or sea ice to melt. That’s, of course, a very large issue, as we all know. But the point is that it has already been identified that the four-fifths of the known reserves must remain underground if we are to have a habitable planet. And I would say the first place to start and the most logical place to start that process would be in the Arctic, Arctic Ocean, as well as various parts, like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that Leah mentioned, that I have been working on for 15 years, must remain off-limits. And as the Arctic Council chair, United States can really help dictate some of these policy issues in addition to the great science that U.S. is contributing. PERIES: Subhankar, what is the responsibility of the Arctic Council and its chairmanship? DONAHEY: So there are eight Arctic nation-states–U.S., Russia, Canada, Norway, Sweden (I’m going too fast), Iceland. Who am I missing? Greenland, Denmark. So, anyway, there are eight Arctic nation-states that are considered sort of the voting body. And then there are these several sort of nongovernmental organizations, as well as tribal organizations, that have a observer status. So is what the Arctic Council is. And they decide all sorts of policies about the Arctic Council, including, as I mentioned, biodiversity, economic development, all of that, climate change. A lot of their reports are actually coming out of the Arctic Council. So the chairmanship means that U.S.–it’s a rotating basis. Each year a different nation takes the chairmanship. This year, starting, as Leah mentioned, U.S. becomes the chair. And, of course, if you are the chair of a particular global body, then you have a little more say about deciding, or at least guiding, some of the policies that would be discussed, that would be debated, that would be moved forward. So that’s why the U.S. plays a very significant role this year with regard to the Arctic. PERIES: Great. I thank you both for joining us and enlightening us on what’s happening in the Arctic. And we will certainly continue covering this story on The Real News Network. And I hope both of you joins us. BANERJEE: Thank you. DONAHEY: Thank you very much. PERIES: Thank you. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network
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