REYKJAVIK, Iceland -- As the inaugural Arctic Circle conference got officially underway here Saturday, a specter loomed over the proceedings. The conference, which brings together policymakers, business leaders, researchers from across the world to discuss issues important to the Arctic, convened with messages from dignitaries of Iceland, Greenland, the United States, United Nations, Canada and Russia, and all of them shared a concern -- the outsized impact of climate change in the Arctic and what it means for far northern populations going forward.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, speaking in a video message, called climate change "the greatest long-term threat to our survival." Moments later, Greenland Premier Aleqa Hammond said her country "strongly support(s)" the UN's stance on climate change. One by one, officials from various Arctic countries -- including Alaska's U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski -- asserted their concerns over melting sea ice, ocean acidification and the possibility of methane release that could exponentially increase the rate of global warming.
Some, though, worry that it may already be too late. The morning's discussions were dominated by climate change, with presentations from NGOs and scientists who all said much the same thing: it's real, and it's happening now.
"You can't afford being a climate skeptic, living in the Arctic," said Johan von de Gronden, chief executive of the World Wildlife Fund in the Netherlands.
And though much was said, and the agreement was largely unanimous that humans must act to attempt to mitigate the effects of climate change, there were few solutions. Some talked of switching to a low-carbon economy, abandoning fossil fuels and utilizing more renewable resources.
Iceland leans on hydro, geothermal energy
Iceland is an appropriate place to beat that drum. The island nation of about 315,000 people gets the majority of its energy from hydroelectric and geothermal sources, and continues to strive for complete energy independence. But for other countries who are still heavily dependent on oil and gas -- including Arctic heavyweights Russia, Canada and the U.S. -- making such a transition would be difficult, to say the least.
And Russia is actually doing the opposite. Russian Arctic ambassador Anton Vasiliev said that his country is "planning to produce the first oil in the ice-covered Arctic offshore next month."
That's been a leading cause of concern for environmental groups worried about the lack of preparedness, or even knowledge, of how to clean up an oil spill in icy waters.
It's been a concern for Greenpeace, which was in attendance, protesting outside of the Harpa conference hall where the Arctic Circle is being conducted. About three weeks ago, 28 Greenpeace protesters and two journalists were arrested and charged at first with piracy after a protest staged against Russian-owned oil company Gazprom and its offshore drilling efforts in the Pechora Sea in Russia's northwest Arctic. Greenpeace hopes to raise awareness of Russia jailing the activists before an influential international audience focused on the Arctic.
In the U.S., the same concerns with offshore oil have been voiced about Royal Dutch Shell's ongoing plans to drill in Alaska's Arctic, which would have continued this summer if not for a problematic 2012 drilling season by the oil major.
Still, Vasiliev at least paid lip service to climate change in the far north, referring to the impact of climate change as "consequences," though consequences of what wasn't exactly clear. "We already have advanced...in scientific observations and scientific analysis, studying the factors and consequences of the climate change, mitigation to these consequences and adaptations to them," he said.
'Mitigation and adaptation'
"Mitigation and adaptation" were another common theme, suggested as the methods for Arctic peoples to deal with the seeming inevitability of the effects of global warming in the Arctic, where such changes are taking place at roughly twice the rate of the rest of the globe.
For some, adaptation could mean moving -- the term "climate refugees" was brought up more than once, referring to both animals and humans. The massive autumn walrus haulout that's been taking place at Point Lay, Alaska, almost every year since 2007 was pointed to as one example. Some speculate that a lack of sea ice in the Chukchi Sea could be to blame.
Meanwhile, also in Alaska, the village of Kivalina is often cited as a community that will likely have to relocate due to the ongoing effects of climate change, including intensified coastal erosion caused by longer periods of open water off the coastline.
As Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, put it, adaptation is "primarily a local concern," but mitigation of worldwide carbon emissions in hopes of slowing the rate of climate change is a global one.
"If, out of ignorance, we have created a major problem," Pachauri said, the best solution will be such adaptation and mitigation.
Methane tipping point?
The IPCC released an extensive report last month that concluded global warming was not only real, it was "extremely likely" that the increased rate of warming is due to human influence. Many of the presenters Saturday drew from that report.
Still, some wonder if it was already too late. A film, "Last Hours," was screened at the conference Saturday. Set to ominous music and voiced by radio personality Thom Hartmann, the film explored the potential release of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost as well as from under the ocean. The film theorizes that the release of methane has reached a tipping point, where the gas leaking into the atmosphere and oceans will only continue to lead to greater warming, releasing more methane, and so on.
If the film's premise is taken as fact, it could render mitigation efforts moot, leaving humanity back at square one. Some things in the Arctic are slowly becoming clear -- the role of shipping, the undersea borders, the economic potential -- but when it comes to the environment, the future is still very much hazy.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com