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OPINION: Seeing is believing

Ari Huhtala, CDKN’s Director of Policy and Programmes, explains how visiting the Arctic brings the reality of climate change home

I have been infatuated by the polar regions of our Earth since childhood and, more recently, I have grown passionate about climate change. Last month I had the opportunity to go on a voyage that was highly relevant to both obsessions. This was a ten-day cruise on a 100-year old schooner sailing along the west coast of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago. Here, the Gulf Stream allows free passage to latitudes otherwise out of bounds for ordinary vessels.

Arctic regions are the canary in the coalmine for climate change. I learned that summer ice in Svalbard now covers about half of the area it covered in 1970. Whenever we visited a glacier, the guide would first indicate the location he had seen the ice extend to a decade ago and then show the position to which it had subsequently receded. Even a layman could see that these were considerable distances.

My ten days’ observation of the fragile wilderness between latitudes N79° and N80° certainly strengthened my sense of the urgency that all discussions about development and green growth must carry. Climate change is here, now, and we need to do all we can to prevent the white, reflective polar ice cap from melting entirely in the summer months. If not, we will reach a tipping point. Once it is reached, too little of the sun’s energy will be radiated back into space. This will accelerate the already alarming pace of climate change.

Throughout history, most people have come to these islands to extract resources. First, whalers came seeking blubber and fur; more recently hydrocarbon companies arrived to extract the coal that, when combusted, helped change our climate. Today, in this area nearly the size of Belgium and the Netherlands combined, polar bears outnumber humans. They are the endangered guardians of a shrinking habitat, yet who will add these bears’ voices to the debate on international climate justice? Given that the atmosphere is a common resource on which we all depend, we must all shoulder the responsibility for the environmental damage our emissions are causing in remote parts of the world and urge politicians to act now.

To get to latitude N80° takes a few days and allows for quality time to admire the Arctic desert of glaciers and peaks, and to be frightened by the vulnerability of our global ecosystem. This frozen paradise has now become the home of the world’s largest gene bank, the Global Seed Vault, established by a number of sensible scientists and politicians in response to the threats our Earth is facing.

Climate change is a major threat that is rendering our common crops unsuitable to new conditions and which could ultimately bring about their demise.   The Vault will store 500 seeds of each commercially used plant, to be deployed at a time when nature again allows it. Some call it the ‘Doomsday Vault’, but if our politicians can be persuaded to come to their senses about climate change before the title becomes a reality, the seeds will not have to see the light of day again.


Image courtesy Alec Connah.

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