Did anyone talk about the Arctic at COP24?

OPINION: Leaders of Arctic countries should have been the ones leading the charge for more drastic climate measures at the recently concluded COP 24 talks.

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Teenage activist Greta Thunberg is seen inside the venue of the COP24 U.N. Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland. (Kacper Pempel / Reuters)

I keep wondering if anyone really talked about the Arctic in Poland at COP24, the great international climate meet that recently ended? This was for a brief moment the world’s most important arena for the battle against climate change, designed to get the Paris Accords from December 2015 on track — but where was the Arctic?

Looking back at two weeks of intense global media coverage, I wonder where were the heads of states from the Arctic countries blasting away about the effects of climate change in the Arctic?

Where were the key ministers from the eight Arctic governments banging fists against podiums to fuel important speeches about the challenges to the Arctic peoples, the villages ravaged by coastal erosion, the threats to biodiversity, the decimated herds of reindeer, the melt of Greenland’s ice sheet and of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, the buckling infrastructure, the heating oceans, the melting permafrost and how the changes in the Arctic will affect the entire globe?

And indeed, where was the Arctic Council? The body that the Arctic governments so often praise as their common platform, our successful melting pot of good intentions, strategic diplomacy and inclusive Arctic governance? How many times have the Arctic Council issued statements on the need for action against climate change? So why did the new Secretary General of the Arctic Council not stand up in an epic moment, devoid of all falsehood and pretense, to face the cameras and tell the world how the eight Arctic governments had asked her to first of all ask for two minutes of silence — and then go on to declare, on behalf of the eight nations and all the indigenous Arctic peoples, that as from this moment all political activity in these eight Arctic states —  including Russia and the USA —  would be drastically re-designed and focused singularly on the prevention of further, catastrophic heating of the planet — and richly inspired, of course, by the consistent work of the five scientific working groups of the Arctic Council, encompassing hundreds of the most dedicated scientists of this world, who have already long ago documented how urgent action is sorely needed. And excuse us, by the way, for not doing this long ago.

‘No talk about climate’

Sometimes it is good to allow oneself a bit of wanderings like this.

I know of the limits to the mandate of the Secretary General of the Arctic Council and, more importantly, the absence of wider commitments to climate efforts in capitals like Moscow and Washington.

But the absence of newsworthy Arctic interventions from political leaders of USA, Russia or other Arctic states at COP24 in Poland reminds us how climate change in the Arctic does not seem to be what drives the agenda for many key political leaders in the Arctic capitals.

The governments of the Arctic are concerned about sustainable development, which is something quite different. Indeed, few know exactly what the term means, but the governments mostly agree that it does not compel them to focus more seriously on climate change, even if the problem is certainly there in the statements of intent.

The Moscow government has recently announced yet another larger-than-life 5.5 billion-ruble investment plan for the Russian Arctic. A colleague from The Independent Barents Observer in Norway travelled with Russian prime minister Medvedev to the booming oil and gas-center in Sabetta in Russia’s far north Yamal Province to report how the new plan covers “investments in regional infrastructure and natural resource development, including railway construction, new sea ports and development of hydrocarbon and coal fields….There was no talk about the aggravating and potentially devastating climate changes that are unfolding in the Arctic. The meeting headed by Medvedev had its focus not on nature protection, but on exploitation.”

In Alaska, on the U.S. side of the Bering Strait latest news is the revitalizing of plans for a new 200-mile highway to copper fields in the far north — and a rush to drill for more oil in more places on the North Slope, including a long-fought-over wildlife refuge; probably to no-one’s surprise. Economic development has been for years on the top of the agenda of many Arctic communities, and the governments of the Arctic countries have been quick to incorporate this natural desire of the peoples of the Arctic into comprehensive, national strategies for future growth.

Teenager steals the attention

The governments of the Arctic states are home to the most glaring evidence of climate change available on the planet. They are rich in economic resources, in technology and knowledge; they have financed for almost three decades substantial science into just about any aspect of climate science in the Arctic, including science conducted by the Arctic Council’s productive scientific working groups. Hundreds of scientific articles, reports and carefully calibrated suggestions for action have been crafted by scores of conscientious experts from across the Arctic — and yet no-one from the governments of the Arctic really stood up to present all this in Poland. The science by the working groups is of course carefully integrated into IPCC’s reports, but is is not boosted in very visible ways by political leaders.

The Arctic Council, to be fair, was certainly not absent in Poland. The Arctic Council and the government of Finland, which is presently chairing the Arctic Council, co-hosted a 90-minute side event for all interested parties to attend on the heady effects of black carbon in the Arctic. An obvious item for the global audience at COP24. Black carbon, which is basically soot from industries, power-plants, gas-production, cars and households in Europe, the U.S. and Asia, is darkening ice and snow in the Arctic, so that the Arctic absorbs more of the sun’s warmth than before. At the event, starred by the environmental ministers from both Finland and Poland, experts told the audience how this heavy source of climate change could fairly easily be extinguished using existing technologies, and a representative from the Climate and Clean Air Coalition told of worldwide efforts to curb black carbon emission.

Meanwhile, 15 year old Greta Thunberg from Sweden stole much of the media attention at COP24 with a three-minute speech. In carefully braided pigtails she faced the global gathering of ministers, diplomats and negotiators of all hues and gave them all she had: “You only speak of green eternal economic growth because you are too scared to be unpopular. You only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess,” she said.

I understand that diplomacy is about finding compromise in the real world. I know that it will most probably never happen, but quietly, I allow myself to wonder if any key political representative of a key Arctic government will ever speak about the Arctic with similar nerve.

Martin Breum is Danish journalist and author. His latest book “Cold Rush,” on Greenland and Denmark’s Arctic engagement, was published in June.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by  ArcticToday, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at) arctictoday.com.