New Arctic Climate Change Report: Stark Findings Confront Secretary of State Tillerson Ahead of G7

May 10, 2017 | 10:01 am
Brenda Ekwurzel
Senior Climate Scientist, Director of Climate Science

On May 11, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will cap two years of US chairmanship of the Arctic Council and present progress made over that time and look at likely future directions.

The forthcoming declaration by the Nordic ministers puts climate change front and center in the lead up to this week’s Arctic Ministerial meeting. The world is paying attention and will be looking for how the issue of climate change is addressed in the Arctic Council ministerial statement, including any signals indicating how Secretary Tillerson might characterize future US actions under the Paris Climate Agreement.

SWIPA 2017: Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic (2017) – long from AMAP on Vimeo.

Stark findings

The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program report, Snow, Water, Ice, Permafrost (SWIPA 2017) will be presented at the Arctic Ministerial meeting this week. It includes two stark findings. First, the least bad scenario for sea level rise has gotten a lot worse—what scientists thought was the best possible chance (i.e. the lower end of the confidence range) for a slow and manageable sea level rise under a fully implemented Paris Climate Agreement just got faster and higher. Second, the global costs run into trillions stemming from  the changes over this century in the Arctic region.

One reason we are in suspense is that there is one additional seat at the table—the proverbial seat occupied by the elephant in the room (i.e. evidence from the just-released science report requested by the Arctic Council).

It is likely that a binding agreement for continued scientific cooperation will be signed by the eight Artic Nations. Will the security implications of the SWIPA 2017 report be a cause for recalibration of the mix of investments in climate adaptation and mitigation (i.e. tackling the root causes of accelerating changes in the Arctic)?

The forthcoming Fairbanks Declaration from this tenth Arctic Ministerial may well reverberate around the world with implications for the G7 leader’s summit in Sicily at the end of May.

Arctic warning: Time to update adaptation plans for sea level rise

According to SWIPA 2017, Arctic land ice contributed around a third of global sea level rise between 2004 and 2010. Overall, two-thirds of global sea level rise is attributed to the transfer of water previously stored on land (as ice or underground or in other reservoirs on land) and one-third of global sea level rise is attributed to warming of the ocean.

Global Sea Level Rise Contributions 2004-2010

Global sea level rise is attributed to a third from warming of the ocean and two thirds from the transfer of water previously stored on land (as ice or underground or in other reservoirs on land) to the ocean. Source: AMAP SWIPA 2017

The SWIPA 2017 report compares the “greenhouse gas reduction scenario” (known as RCP 4.5, which also serves as a proxy for an emissions scenario consistent with the long term goals of the Paris Climate Agreement) with the high emissions scenario (known as RCP 8.5 and used as a proxy for business as usual without a Paris Agreement).

It may be time to update adaptation plans to fully take into account more realistic projections of global sea level rise—SWIPA 2017 “estimates are almost double the minimum estimates made by the IPCC in 2013” for global sea level rise from all sources.

The difference between a fully implemented Paris Climate Agreement scenario and business as usual could not be more stark. The report declares that “the rise in global sea level by 2100 would be at least 52 cm  (20 inches) for a greenhouse gas reduction scenario and 74 cm (29 inches) for a business-as-usual scenario.” This is the best estimate likely “lock in” range for minimal, least-cost, coastal adaptation depending on the choices we make to reduce heat-trapping emissions and short-lived climate forcers.

Arctic slush fund: The high costs of displaced communities, melting, flooding, and burning in the Arctic

The Arctic matters to all of us: what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. Case in point is the recent economic analysis presented in SWIPA 2017.

Global cumulative costs of changes underway in the Arctic would likely cost $7–$90 trillion US dollars over 2010-2100. The costs include a wide range of climate change consequences, from Arctic infrastructure damage to communities exposed to sea level rise. For comparison, the US annual “real” gross domestic product in 2016 was $18.6 trillion in current dollars.

Implications for the G7 summit and Paris Climate Agreement

The Arctic Ministerial meeting May 11 is a chance for high level officials from the Arctic Council to meet and discuss progress in a setting historically noteworthy for peaceful cooperation to achieve shared goals.

There is a high degree of overlap between the Arctic council members and observer non-Arctic states and the Group of 7 (G7) summit in Sicily a few weeks later. There is also a high degree of overlap with the highest emitting nations and the members of the Arctic Council.

The lessons learned and issues of climate change that are grappled with during the Arctic Ministerial may very well carry through to the G7 forum. After the summit we expect to hear more definitively about US actions regarding contributions to the Paris Agreement going forward.

For the moment, eyes are focused on Secretary of State Tillerson and his remarks in Fairbanks Alaska, and the Fairbanks declaration, expected to be signed on May 11.

[UPDATE, May 12, 2017, 9:01am: Rex Tillerson signed the Fairbanks Declaration that supports the implementation of the Paris Agreement, that reiterates the need for global action to reduce global warming gases and short-lived pollutants, and that reaffirms the Arctic region’s commitment to sustainable development and to promoting the well-being of indigenous groups.]


About the author

More from Brenda

Brenda Ekwurzel ensures that program analyses reflect robust and relevant climate science, and researches the influence of major carbon producers on rising global average temperatures and sea level. Dr. Ekwurzel is a co-author of the fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) Volume II. She presents frequently to a range of audiences on climate science, educating the public on practical, achievable solutions for climate change.