Arctic Sees June Temperatures in February

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When snow must be imported for the Iditarod for the first time, Greenpeace USA’s Cassady Sharp says record temperatures and the alarming rate of sea ice melting should have us all on high alert

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Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

It’s so warm in Alaska snow had to actually be hauled into the state for its annual iconic dog sled race, the Iditarod. This year broke climate records in Anchorage, Alaska, when February 29 became the first day in February to be without snow in recorded history. This is the fifth straight month that global average temperatures were more than 1 degree Celsius above average, and nowhere were temperatures more above average than in the Arctic, where temperatures climbed 16 degrees Celsius above average. That’s weather that they usually see in June. This is triggering low levels of sea ice, which have huge ramifications for speeding up global warming.

With us to help us understand why what happens in the Arctic doesn’t necessarily just stay in the Arctic is our guest, Cassady Sharp. She is a communications officer at Greenpeace USA, and focuses on the organization’s democracy campaign. Thank you so much for joining us, Cassady.

CASSADY SHARP: Thanks for having me.

DESVARIEUX: So, Cassady, we know that the majority of climate scientists agree that climate change is not only happening, but it’s also man-made. But what are we seeing happening in the Arctic? Is this faster than most predicted?

SHARP: Yes, it absolutely is faster at a really alarming rate. And the statistics you’ve just laid out about this month’s record-breaking–or February’s record-breaking temperatures–really highlights that, that I don’t think anybody could have predicted it would be this fast.

And the Arctic itself is sort of like looking for a leak in your house. It really is exactly where you can see the most alarming, the most drastic symptoms of climate change. So you’re seeing places, you know, February is supposed to be the coldest month in the Arctic and in the northern hemisphere, and we’re seeing June temperatures. And you know, it’s not a fluke. I think a lot of people make the argument that El Nino is making it worse. But quite honestly, global warming makes El Nino worse, and therefore is making all the temperatures happening this year just so record-breaking. And it’s just a trajectory where every month, you know, is warmer than the month in that last year.

And so it’s happening much faster than, I think, scientists could have predicted. It really is sounding alarms that we must cut carbon emissions if we’re to slow any of this down.

DESVARIEUX: Some people are also saying, Cassady, you know, the record books don’t go back that far. They only go back 30 years when it comes to measuring the Arctic sea level. So how do we know that this is not part of a natural warming and cooling cycle?

SHARP: Well, I think a good way to answer that–Slate’s meteorologist actually touched on this, on this issue a little bit, once all that data was revealed about February’s temperatures. He made a really great point, that it took from the, basically the beginning of the industrialization era to this fall to see a 1 degree Celsius increase. But it’s only taking us four months to see a 0.5 degree Celsius increase. And just to remind people why those numbers are important, in Paris, countries around the world agreed on a global deal to stay below 2 degrees Celsius, and to phase out fossil fuels by 2050.

So that 2 degrees Celsius increase is what we’re supposed to stay below, if we’re to avoid catastrophic climate change. So you can see that all of these things are happening at the same time. We’re increasing, since the industrial age, we’ve increased carbon emissions and burning fossil fuels. So what has risen along with that? Temperatures and sea levels. And of course, the only thing that’s really decreasing is the sea ice in that situation. So that is certainly nothing natural when you see that we’re just getting worse and worse, that every new record that’s broken is broken, that’s not just a random little spike. It’s an increased trajectory that’s very worrisome.

DESVARIEUX: So let’s tackle the question that I posed in the introduction. Why is what happens in the Arctic doesn’t mean that it just stays in the Arctic? Why should we be so concerned about what’s happening there?

SHARP: Sure. So in the Arctic there is sea ice, and sea ice is important for several reasons. It limits global warming by reflecting sunlight back into space like a reflector. It also regulates ocean currents. So when you see really freak, extreme weather things happening, like the weirdly bizarre December we had before Christmas, to the Jonas blizzard, those can really be linked back to ocean currents really out of whack when sea ice melts.

So when you have that polar ice and snow also reflecting 80 percent of incoming sunlight back into space, that’s a really important tool. So when that melts, that sunlight is then increased [on] the darker ocean surface. So when that extra heat is radiated and is trapped by greenhouse gases like carbon, like methane, you then warm the climate.

And so that is, is a big factor in global, you know, in regulating global temperatures, global climate. But it also has a very immediate impact on anybody or any creature that lives in the Arctic. You know, I don’t know if people saw this famous image that went around, I believe, last year, of all these walruses huddled together. It’s because they depend on sea ice to move around, just like the iconic kind of poster child of global warming, the polar bear, does. And when that sea ice melts they’re literally losing, like, our–what we would walk on. And so, and then of course there’s people that live, like you mentioned before, having the ice being brought in and the snow being brought in. people also rely on that sea ice to live, to have homes, to fish, to all of that, especially communities that do subsistence fishing.

And so that sea ice melt impacts people that actually live on the sea ice, and then it impacts people that live in another hemisphere.

DESVARIEUX: And then can you just quickly explain this feedback loop, just to get into a little bit of that science?

SHARP: Sure. So yeah, like I said, when the sea ice is there, and it’s healthy, it reflects sunlight back into space, and then therefore regulating ocean currents, regulating global climate. So when that melts, when we burn increased fossil fuels, and carbon is released in the atmosphere, methane is also a very harmful greenhouse gas that is also released. That makes that sea ice melt that much faster. And then the ocean that is left beneath it is a darker ocean surface, and then it soaks up all of that sunlight, [inaud.].

DESVARIEUX: Yeah, it’s kind of like going back to kindergarten. Lighter colors reflect, and darker colors absorb more light, more heat, and all of that.

Okay. Cassady, I want to talk about the positive out of all of this. Because this is very alarming, and people kind of want to, can feel sometimes very helpless when they hear of news like this. How are people organizing to combat this reality? Have we seen any changes in the fossil fuel sector that is altering the course of climate change? Or any policies, for that matter, that have been pushed forth to combat climate change?

SHARP: Sure. So yes, a lot of the talk about global warming and sea ice rapidly melting is very depressing, and I don’t think that this election cycle is giving us much hope when we have a whole party that doesn’t even acknowledge climate change.

But what is truly remarkable is that people power is really making a difference here. I’ll point to an example of Hillary Clinton’s own climate evolution, is what we’d like to call it, where you know, she was the first presidential candidate to actually launch with clean energy and climate as a major pillar of her platform. Yet, honestly, her climate plan wasn’t that strong. This is back in the spring. But what happened is we’ve seen people confront her every step of the way, whether it’s a debate or a town hall or a rally or a fundraiser, or online on social media. And people are challenging her on specific issues that make a really big deal with climate change. So Arctic drilling, Atlantic drilling, fossil fuel extraction on public lands. And every time she’s confronted by people she moves a little bit more to the left, and therefore a little bit more in the direction of a sustainable future.

So something like that is really encouraging now, we’re actually making presidential candidates stronger on climate change.

DESVARIEUX: But I can imagine, Cassady, you’re not depending on these candidates to necessarily get the job done. You’re, like you said, people power. What kind of things are people doing to just take it on head on?

SHARP: Yeah. I mean, I certainly don’t think that it can be discounted, people confronting elected officials. But we are also seeing people actually stop a lot of these projects. I think the Atlantic drilling issue is a really great example, too. And that has a very odd bedfellow situation where you have Republicans and Democrats coming together saying we don’t want Atlantic drilling, which is the next proposed major fossil fuel project.

And that is a part of a whole legacy of work around public lands and protecting public lands from fossil fuel projects that all represent huge carbon emission projects. So every time people bring up something like offshore drilling, or the federal coal program, all of those things together are major climate problems for us, and basically cancel out any, you know, deals that we’ve made to stop global carbon emissions. So people have been rallying together in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, to stop Atlantic drilling. You’ve also seen people in Colorado really standing up to people wanting to frack in Colorado.

So I think some great ways to get involved can start with your region. There’s probably a major fossil fuel project happening wherever you live. And you can, you know, go to Greenpeace.org, and we have a lot, particularly on the Atlantic piece, going on, and you can find out more there. I think the issue that happened with Shell’s Arctic drilling and all the amazing activism we saw in Seattle and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest and all around the world, really, has really sparked a re-energized movement around climate change that honestly couldn’t have come at a more dire time.

DESVARIEUX: All right. Cassady Sharp joining us from Washington, DC, thank you so much for being with us.

SHARP: Thanks for having me.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for having us on the Real News Network.

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