Author predicts climate change will bring grim future to the Arctic

By Beth Brown, Nunatsiaq News - September 6, 2017

The world’s average global temperature is only one degree Celsius away from a potential climate catastrophe to which few regions would be more vulnerable than the Arctic.

That’s according to well-known author, historian and journalist Gwynne Dyer, who is a frequent commentator on international affairs, security and climate change.

Globally, there’s time for a reversal of global warming, said Dyer, speaking to Nunatsiaq News in advance of a presentation he is set to give in Iqaluit later this week.

But in the North, the average atmospheric temperature is already two or three degrees C higher than in lower latitudes.

It’s not news to northerners that sea ice is getting thinner and melting more quickly, and that permafrost is more prone to thaw, but Dyer said this change in overall global temperature is the primary reason these are taking place.

“All the effects are magnified in the North,” he said. “You’re getting more warming and the effects on permafrost and sea ice are bigger than similar effects on the rest of the planet,” Dyer said.

Dyer, originally from Newfoundland, is on a speaking tour to promote an upcoming book, as well as past titles including ‘Climate Wars.”

Dyer said that if all players in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement keep their promises, climate concerns could possibly be alleviated in the coming years.

While that possibility is nothing to “declare a national holiday” over, the agreement was still “a far better deal than we’ve ever made before,” Dyer said.

“We might just squeak to a halt before we hit two,” he said, referring to the Paris agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to a rise of two degrees C. above the pre-industrial level. As it stands, it’s inevitable, he says, that the global temperatures will increase, on average, by at least 1.3 C above pre-industrial levels.

But an increase of two C or higher would trigger a “runaway” scenario under which the current incremental release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would become exponentially greater.

He used permafrost thaw as an example, saying that should that thaw, the dead vegetation in the soil— which froze before it could naturally decompose—would rot all at once, causing a mass release of carbon dioxide.

“Once that happens we can’t stop it, unless you know a way of refreezing the permafrost,” he said.

Right now the burning of fossil fuels accounts for about 60 per cent of climate change globally and agriculture accounts for about 20 per cent, he said, adding that forestry is a close third.

In a territory such as Nunavut, that is seeing the negative impacts from warming, and that is largely reliant on diesel for power, this news could be cause for concern.

But Dyer said that fossil fuel emissions from Nunavut’s diesel electric power plants couldn’t be compared to the fuel levels burned daily during rush hour traffic in Toronto, or to the kinds of machinery used in the mass production of monoculture crops.

That’s because of the North’s small population, he said.

He had the same opinion when it came to added emissions from vessels transiting the Northwest Passage, mine development in Nunavut, or offshore drilling that could take place in the U.S. following President Donald Trump’s environmental policy changes.

“That’s pollution, that’s not global warming,” Dyer said. “By and large human activities in the North are such a tiny part of the cycle.”

In these cases, sudden pollution via an oil spill or damage made to ecosystems needed by northern wildlife are far more pressing concerns, he said.

“I don’t think development as such—building houses, building harbours—is going to have any significant effect on climate. The North will be the victims of what is happening elsewhere.”

While many large scale issues in the Arctic—such as sovereignty, security and trade—get a lot of “hype” within international dialogue, “climate is not hype,” Dyer said, adding that he thinks this reality will make it harder for northerners to keep up traditional Inuit ways of life.

“I think it will be increasingly difficult for people in the North to live part of the old lifestyle, part of the time,” Dyer said.

Dyer plans share his knowledge of climate change as it relates to the North in Iqaluit Sept. 7,at 7 p.m., during a talk at the Unikkaarvik Visitor Centre amphitheater.

The evening event is to be hosted jointly by the Iqaluit Centennial Library and the Nunavut Arctic College.

The college will record the presentation to use in its environmental curriculum.