World Views
9:04 am
Wed March 6, 2013

On Our Way to “Waterworld” In Less than 40 Years

The sea ice atop the Arctic Ocean can—as shown in this photograph from July 12, 2011—look more like Swiss cheese or a bright coastal wetland.
Credit NASA Goddard Photo and Video / Flickr
Joshua Landis and Rebecca Cruise's interview with Climate Institute President and CEO John Topping

A new study out this week finds that ice-free passage from North America to Asia directly over the North Pole could be possible after 2049.

UCLA geographers Laurence Smith and Scott Stephenson published the study Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

By 2050, according to the study analyzed by The Guardian:

“Ordinary vessels should be able to travel easily along the northern sea route, and moderately ice-strengthened ships should be able to take the shortest possible route between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, passing over the pole itself. The easiest time would be in September, when annual sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean is at its lowest extent.”

John Topping is the President and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Climate Institute, and says the U.S. is already seeing the some of the world’s first “environmental refugees.”

“It's essentially 200 Native villages that are at some degree of risk on the Alaska coast,” Topping says.  “They are threatened by a combination of permafrost thaw and sea level rise. There are a number of them that are already looking at relocating from there.”

Michael MacCracken, Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs at the institute, says the Arctic will warm by several times as much during the 21st century as it did during the 20th century.

From MacCracken's article "Arctic Region Noticeably Changing":

"As permafrost melts and these vegetation shifts occur, forest ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to fire and pests. Wildlife will also be significantly affected, especially those animals like the polar bear and walrus that depend on sea ice reaching near land at various times during the year and caribou that depend on frozen rivers and open tundra regions in the course of their annual migrations. Marine fisheries will also be altered, for many depend on events going on at the edge of the sea ice."

A graphic excerpted from the original PNAS study.
Credit Laurence C. Smith and Scott R. Stephenson / Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Topping chairs a subcommittee of the American National Standards Institute Life Cycle Assessment Committee. He says ANSI is working on an environmental Life Cycle Assessment that its developers argue could address many limitations of the 2005 Kyoto Protocol.

“If this happens, it could become the basis for an international standards organization that would govern major projects,” Topping says. “So companies that wanted to get a kind-of "green label" would look at this, and there's very strong interest in Scandinavia and other countries in moving if the U.S. adopts this standard.”

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

On the potential risks of climate change facing the U.S.

We've seen a modest amount of sea level rise over the last century. It's possible we could see, at this point, it's likely we may see as much as three feet of sea level rise. That is going to be a big concern, particularly for the Atlantic and the Gulf Coast of the U.S., and of course small island nations as well. But it's significant, let's say on the Atlantic Coast, for every foot that you see of sea level rise; you're likely to see about 200 times that of shoreline retreat. So if you see, let's say a three foot-rise in sea level.  That means roughly 900 feet of shoreline will likely be lost. We can do certain things, we can protect certain cities by building dykes or other seawalls around them, but it means we would lose our pocket beaches in the U.S.

On the challenge of creative, preventative collaboration

My hope is that this generation of people who founded Facebook, who've grown up with social media, who started from the time they were practically preschoolers playing games online, who are going to be profoundly affected by climate change can be leaders. They can come together, and we can have maybe 100 million people who can work on these challenges… If we can create this kind of collective collaboration, that can be more effective than the 200,000 or so of us who run back and forth to meetings on climate, and energy, and often generate more in emissions than creative solutions.

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: John Topping, welcome to World Views.

JOHN TOPPING: Well thank you, Rebecca.

CRUISE: We're happy to have you here. In Oklahoma, of course, we've experienced our fair share of tough weather, particularly recently. It seems that we've been getting a number of storms, snow incidents, etc. Obviously this part of the country has been dealing with drought conditions for some time. So is this a pattern that we're going to see into the foreseeable future, or is this just kind of a fluke?

TOPPING: I think the statistical odds of these extreme events will be increasing. No single flood or drought or tornado can be blamed necessarily on climate change, but we know that there's going to be climate variability, and humanity is going to be threatened by that. It doesn't matter, really, which is the cause if you're facing that sort of crisis.

JOSHUA LANDIS: What are some of the statistics that you use in talking about climate change? We hear so much debate about whether it's true, that there is climate change, or whether it's just a fluke and that things are going to go back to what they were before. How should Oklahomans think about this? Because we've heard everything, and it's rare that we get to speak to somebody who's devoted their entire life to studying this issue.

CRUISE: Well, I wonder, could you add a little about what some of the specific risks are that we could potentially be facing, not just here in Oklahoma, but around the world?

TOPPING: Right. Well, first, on this whole issue we're certainly seeing a strong warming trend. The President, in the State of the Union address, whether one agrees with him or not on other issues, was right in the sense that 12 of the last 15 years have been the warmest years of roughly the last century. That's incontrovertible. There are thousands of meteorological stations around the world that fed into that. So there is warming underway. It does seem to be associated with climate change. The risks are that we will see accelerating sea level rise. We've seen a modest amount of sea level rise over the last century. It's possible we could see, at this point, it's likely we may see as much as three feet of sea level rise. That is going to be a big concern, particularly for the Atlantic and the Gulf Coast of the U.S., and of course small island nations as well. But it's significant, let's say on the Atlantic Coast, for every foot that you see of sea level rise; you're likely to see about 200 times that of shoreline retreat. So if you see, let's say a three foot-rise in sea level.  That means roughly 900 feet of shoreline will likely be lost. We can do certain things, we can protect certain cities by building dykes or other seawalls around them, but it means we would lose our pocket beaches in the U.S. Other countries would be facing this.

LANDIS: So what we saw in Manhattan is waiting for us in the future.

TOPPING: Exactly. We actually, several years, ago, did something talking about the big disaster that might happen in New York from a Nor'easter and hurricanes. It's a fascinating thing. If one goes to the Climate.org site, in the Big Apple, it was remarkably close to what actually happened. We organized a conference in 2006 where we had a number of scientists from schools, particularly in New York, that were looking at essentially creating barriers. London has already done some of this to protect itself. And I think some of the major cities may be able to do that. Miami and New York and London may be able to survive, but you have a lot of areas - the North Carolina Coast - that are going to find it very difficult. So that's one huge problem. Depending on how much loss we were to see of coastal areas, you could be talking about hundreds of millions of people over the next century who could be forced to move. We're already seeing the first environmental refugees, some of the first actually in the United States, in Alaska. It's essentially 200 Native villages that are at some degree of risk on the Alaska coast, where they are threatened by a combination of permafrost thaw and sea level rise. There are a number of them that are already looking at relocating from there. So it's happening, and I think one of the mistakes in climate is to assume that the United States is immune. I would submit you're probably the most vulnerable of all the industrial countries. There are a few countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Vietnam that are perhaps are even slightly more at risk than we are, but we have several risks. On the coastal areas, particularly on the Atlantic Coast, and on the Gulf Coast, we have a risk of both storms and also sea level rise. The sea level rise is a little less of a problem on the Pacific Coast because the coasts typically are fairly steep there. The shallower the coast, the more the shoreline retreat will be. But still, there are concerns there. So that's a problem. But you also have places in the U.S. Southwest where drought could become a severe problem. You have other places in the country, Oklahoma and Alabama are certainly affected by severe storms inland. We don't really know the science yet in terms of tornadoes. It looks likely that hurricane intensity will increase. It's possible tornado intensity will. It seems plausible, but at this point, it's an open research question.

CRUISE: Well, as you mentioned, it is a trans-national issue, even if states like the United States wanted to escape these issues related to climate change, it's inescapable. Do you foresee in the future that this will bring states together to cooperate to find solutions, or is this going to create some sort of violence or security concern as resources become scarce, and people in large populations start moving in response to some of these threats that you mention.

TOPPING: Well, I think the challenge is to bring people together before the crisis is fully upon us, and my hope is that this generation of people who founded Facebook, who've grown up with social media, who started from the time they were practically preschoolers playing games online, who are going to be profoundly affected by climate change can be leaders. They can come together, and we can have maybe 100 million people who can work on these challenges. Maybe not just spending time doing Angry Birds, they can still do that, and World of Warcraft, but maybe spend an hour or two a week on some practical problem-solving solutions. If we can create this kind of collective collaboration, that can be more effective than the 200,000 or so of us who run back and forth to meetings on climate, and energy, and often generate more in emissions than creative solutions. That's critically missing. We're not doing nearly enough of that. You look after Katrina, where hundreds of billions of dollars in damage, the government coming in for much of the same thing in Sandy. We spent all sorts of money after the fact. We feel bad for people who have been hit hard. It's very hard to spend small amounts of money beforehand. It's a little bit of the same thing in the health care system. We don't spend nearly enough in prevention. We spend a lot in the last six months of somebody's life. We need to, in addressing a lot of these challenges such as climate change, we need to do a lot of planning beforehand when things are a whole lot cheaper than they are after the disaster has hit.

CRUISE: Well, the United States has been criticized to some extent for not being more of a player on the international stage in regards to climate change, or being proactive. What can the United States do to not only deal with our internal issues regarding climate, but deal with some of the external issues that are going to affect us all?

TOPPING: Well, I think there are several things. We've played a very creative role in pushing reduction of emissions of black carbon soot and other so-called "short-lived climate forcers," where you can get big human health gains, and you can get benefits from the climate right away. Former Secretary of State Clinton played a very positive role in getting that. 25 countries have moved on that, including some of the big polluting developing countries as well, so we're seeing some progress there. The U.S. has played a very positive role in the Arctic, which is an area that is very threatened. The Arctic Council, where the U.S. is one of eight country members, and then there are six indigenous tribal organizations that are also members, we can play a very creative role there. Also, I'm the chair of a subcommittee of the American National Standards Institute Life Cycle Assessment Committee, where we're looking at a new life-cycle assessment that may affect energy development projects in different parts of the world, but particularly undertaken by U.S. companies. We're looking at the U.S. perhaps having the strongest voluntary life cycle standard for these major projects of any country in the world that would be factoring in emissions to the Arctic, looking at effects on the Arctic and on ocean acidification. If this gets adopted in the U.S., we're hoping this will be adopted by later this year. It's been out for public comment, and now we're moving toward a formal submission of this. If this happens, it could become the basis for an international standards organization that would govern major projects. So companies that wanted to get a kind-of "green label" would look at this, and there's very strong interest in Scandinavia and other countries in moving if the U.S. adopts this standard. It's largely a voluntary standard, but sometimes the advantage of voluntary standards, if they affect major projects, is they can come in ten years faster than EPA regulations, which everybody sues over. So I'm optimistic that the U.S., even though I don't see a lot of action coming out Congress and Washington. It's also significant on black carbon, that there is a kind of political consensus. It's interesting - April 22, 2009, almost four years ago - U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who's generally been a climate skeptic, and (Former) U.S. Sen. John Kerry (R-MA), U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) all joined together in sponsoring legislation to ask the U.S. EPA to do an analysis of reductions of soot, or black carbon, and their potential effects here and abroad. U.S. EPA did this, and it's a remarkably positive standard, and it's helped in some of the work that's now happening through the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. So that's something where even people who are climate skeptics breathe air just as other people do, and I think that's critical to make these things happen.

CRUISE: Well, we'll go ahead and end on that positive note. Thank you so much for your time today.

TOPPING: Thank you very much.

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