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April 24, 2014

Earth Day, Climate Change, and Our Relationship with Ice


To comprehend global climate change, we must understanding how we’re all in a relationship with ice.

So says Olafur Ragnar Grimsson at a briefing I attended this week — fittingly on Earth Day — here at the World Affairs in San Francisco.

As president of Iceland since 1996, and serving in his fifth term, Grimsson is easily one of the longest-running democratically elected heads of state in the world today.

An Outspoken Voice for Change
Grimsson has emerged in recent years as one of the world’s most outspoken voices in the cause to address climate change.  Indeed, he leads an Arctic nation on the front lines of melting sea ice and deals first-hand with the effects of our warming planet.

In this way, we can regard Iceland as a laboratory, a microcosm of causes and conditions — scientific, economic, and political — that help us understand the complexities and interrelationships between melting ice, energy, and impacts on people and global markets that are sure to come for everyone.

Greater economic sustainability from investment in green energy
Grimsson also leads one the most “green” countries in the world — Iceland’s energy consumption is now more than 85 percent from renewable sources, including geothermal and wind.

In the span of just one or two generations, Iceland has successfully made the transition from a nation dependent on coal to one of the world’s leading green energy consumers.  This serves an example to the world — particularly China — as it prepares to shift away from dependency on fossil fuels and come up with real answers to global climate change.

Grimsson attributes his country’s aggressive investment in renewable energy as a significant reason why Iceland emerged from the global financial crisis healthier than before.  Indeed, evidence suggests that green energy investment yields greater increases in GDP, and Iceland is a shinning example where this bears out.
A Time of Shifting Rhetoric on Climate Change
Grimmson’s talk this week comes at a time of profoundly changing attitudes among climate experts.   Within the recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations, and others, the rhetoric is no longer “if” the effects of climate change will be felt but rather when, where, and how much.

For many climatologists and environmental experts, the world has crossed a tipping point where the effects of a warming planet will be inevitable.  Many now realize that and the time for prevention has passed us and preparation for action is now necessary to manage the impacts that are certain to come. This rhetoric is in sharp contract to the tone of scientific discussions just 2 or 3 years ago.

A Third Pole
As an Arctic leader, Grimmson stresses the need to rethink how we view the world as a whole, interrelated system rather than separate parts.  The idea that the North and South Poles are remote, desolate, and isolated places won’t advance the cause to address global climate change.

He introduces the need to consider the idea of a “Third Pole” —  the Himalayas — when considering the consequences of melting ice.

Consider that about one billion people in a dozen countries are in some way dependent on the waters that flow from the great glaciers in the Himalayas — contributing to the great rivers of the Indus, the Ganges, and the Bramhaputra.

Impacts of melting Ice being felt in China
Grimmson also cites recent scientific studies that reveal a startlingly close interrelationship between melting sea ice in the Arctic and the severity of storms in central China.  In the past 4 or 5 years, rapid sea ice melts are contributing to recent devastating winter storms and cold temperatures in China, according to these scientific studies.

Opportunity for U.S.-Russia cooperation at the Arctic Council
Iceland has played a major role in the eight-member Arctic Council, and Grimmson sees the opportunity for greater cooperation in the future.

Especially for the United States’s bilateral relationship with Russia, the Arctic Council represents one of the best examples where the U.S. and Russia are cooperating.

Need to stay informed, and stay active
Grimmson encourages world watchers to stay informed on Arctic issues — and even to become active if one can.  Awareness of Arctic issues is on the rise lately — especially in China, which has begun sending it’s top scientists and engineers to the Arctic to study and learn.  We in the U.S. especially have a role to play in continuing to spread awareness and advocate for change.  Indeed, Iceland is the star example.

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