Climate change: “We’re not moving fast enough”

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President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

Earlier this month President Obama and foreign ministers from the eight Arctic nations (including the US) and key non-Arctic states gathered at the GLACIER conference in Anchorage to highlight and address “challenges facing the region.” I am proud that WHRC scientists played an important role in shaping this event – perhaps even in making it happen – which was dominated by discussions of climate change and its impacts.

The President gave a forceful speech. We were warned beforehand that climate change would be only one of many issues he would address, but in fact he focused strongly on that issue, highlighting an impressive list of measures his administration has taken, but repeating that “we are not moving fast enough.” Accompanying the President was Assistant to the President for Science and Technology (and former WHRC president) John Holdren, who offered what that The New York Times described as “a bleak, dispassionate report on diminished glaciers, melting permafrost, rising sea levels and the spread of wildfires.”

Against this backdrop, Sarah Palin appeared on CNN to say that humans aren’t causing climate change, offering as proof the cherry-picked assertion that some glaciers in Alaska are growing. This is true, but overall Alaska’s glaciers are shrinking rapidly. A recent estimate found that they are losing 75 billion tons of ice every year, which is enough to supply almost a quarter of the water needs of the entire US. Needless to say, Palin should know better. Nowhere are the impacts of climate change more visible than in Alaska, where the wintertime average temperature has increased by 6.3oF in the past 50 years, twice the national average. Besides shrinking glaciers, these impacts include dramatic reductions in sea ice, rapid coastal erosion (caused partly by loss of sea ice), thawing permafrost, and raging wildfires (which accelerate permafrost thaw).

The President was right that we’re doing more than ever about climate change, but still not enough. As former South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis said in the film Merchants of Doubt, we risk “leaving our children and grandchildren a legacy of people who failed to lead. People who, when it came their time to be awakened, slept.” In his Anchorage speech the President said, “Those who want to ignore the science… are on their own shrinking island.” I hope he’s right, and I hope that this particular island becomes submerged before it’s too late.

It has been extremely gratifying to see the imprint of the WHRC’s work in the GLACIER conference. Successes like this inspire us to work even harder to understand climate change science and to bring that understanding into the realm of policy. Thanks as always for your interest and support.