David Monsma on new report on Arctic: The Shared Future

A new report titled The Shared Future from the Commission on Arctic Climate Change echoes scientists’ findings that the Arctic is being transformed. David Monsma is executive director of the Energy and Environment Program for the Aspen Institute, which released the final report and recommendations in March 2011, in cooperation with the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation. The report suggests that rapid change in the Arctic will lead to unprecedented challenges in how the Arctic is protected and governed. David Monsma spoke more about the new report on the Arctic – The Shared Future – with EarthSky’s Jorge Salazar. To learn more, LISTEN OR READ: audio podcasts above, text below.

Mr. Monsma, welcome to EarthSky. What is the main finding of The Shared Future: the report by the Aspen Institute Commission on Arctic Climate Change?

The commission was formed as a civil society dialogue for purposes that are still unfolding. Many are aware that the rate of climate change and global warming in the Arctic is faster – and has greater impacts earlier – than in many places in the world. The exception might be low-lying island nations. We wanted to understand whether the institutional arrangements that exist currently – the Arctic Council, what the Arctic states do, and more – were going to be adequate to address the rapid and dramatic changes in the Arctic.

Over the 2-and-a-half years that the commission met, we discovered, among other things, that there really is a lack of a holistic, coordinated or integrated plan for the Arctic. We have many different sectors and human activities – many different needs in the Arctic – including indigenous people that live there. But we don’t really have a method or a system or a plan for conservation and sustainable development. That is something that is a shared responsibility across more than one nation.

You called the report The Shared Future. What is the future we all share in the Arctic?

The scientists – the people who work on this year in and year out – have been developing a body of the data. It says that something strong is happening with regard to climate forcing in the Arctic. We hear about melt off. The ice extent – that is the degree in which Arctic ice expands and contracts to cover the ocean – is changing and shrinking.

The Arctic is a vast region. So it is understandable that most of that management is left to the sovereign states that have boundaries in the Arctic, and to international agreements including the Law of the Seas. Those are the institutions on which we have to build.

But I think – in this concept of a shared responsibility – the commission is asking if we need to be more deliberate and intentional. In other words, if we need an integrated plan.

You brought together leaders of science, environmental stewardship and industry. Do you believe these groups will need to come together to solve big, long-lasting changes in the Arctic?

Yes. How do you aid Arctic countries and five coastal states in the Arctic and plethora of operating companies in different shipping sectors, oil and gas sectors, and a community of over 10 – 12 million people who live in the Arctic?

We all understand that the Arctic and Antarctic are unique places in the world. And the changes that are occurring there are dramatic. So the response has to be equal to the pace of change and the scale of change.

And I think that’s what the report was trying to organize the best that it could. We need to match the rate of change. We need to be able to be responsive to what is happening. And something is happening.

What were some of the hardest questions raised?

There is a lot of hard questions. How do we define the Arctic? All nations have a different definition regarding what constitutes the Arctic. There are questions about whether other contextual forces, besides climate change, are causing changes in the Arctic – maybe a combination of global warming, and shifting wind patterns. There are a number of scientific issues, always working, always changing.

So it’s a huge challenge for any group, government or commission to work with Arctic change. We have science, we have technology and we have pretty high-scale diplomacy. We have all these things operating, but we don’t have a place that brings it together.

We live in an age of information technology. There should be an ability to network better. There are concepts like network governance and electronic governance. We live in an information age, but that information isn’t well connected. One of the findings that I feel was important to the work of the Commission on Arctic Climate Change was that we saw scientists doing their work. Scientists are able to use their scientific publication process to establish baselines and know what’s changing.

The Commission on Arctic Climate Change thinks we need some type of network – open source – a Google Arctic that is not for showing photos of your trip to the highest reaches of the Arctic, but rather it shows information about the changes that are occurring there. The walrus hauling out at a certain time of the year. A die-off of certain marine life. New shipping activity, proposed oil and gas activity.

We need a platform. It is hard to imagine, but I think we have all seen good examples. There are areas in the world where we’ve been able to connect communities to be able to understand changes. Transparency is the key.

What is the most important thing you want people to know about our shared future in the Arctic?

We need to demonstrate to ourselves and to the world that we can come together and work in an integrated and coordinated way, to manage an area of the world as a result of climate change. It is a reality now, the changes and the impact it’s having are a reality. And our response needs to be convincing.

We need to be able to show that internationalism is a part of global leadership for all countries. The United States has had this role in the past. Others have also been able to demonstrate their leadership. For the future, we want the ability to say: this is a special area of the world. It’s symbolic of the entire ecosystem on the planet.

We had a chance in other areas of the world. This may be the last chance we have to demonstrate we understand how to conserve and manage a pristine area – even though it is a wild and largely unknown area of the world – and at the same time meet our human needs, for this generation and for future generations.

EarthSky interviews on the new report from the Commission on Arctic Climate Change – titled The Shared Future – are part of a special series made possible in part by Shell – encouraging dialogue on the energy challenge. EarthSky is a clear voice for science.

April 4, 2011

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