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'Planetary Emergency': New Data Elevates Climate Change Alarm

Arctic exploitation 'perfect indictment of our failure to get to grips with the greatest problem we've ever faced'

- Common Dreams staff

Drawing on new data on the rate of melting arctic ice released Wednesday by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), leading scientific experts and environmental campaigners upped the level of alarm and issued a renewed call to action by calling the growing reality of climate change a "planetary emergency".

"We are in a planetary emergency," said NASA climate expert James Hansen (Photo: Greenpeace/Danile Beltra) The NSIDC reports shows that the melted areas of Arctic sea ice had not only hit a record low this year, but that it had dramatically receded to levels not previously anticipated. NSIDC director Mark Serreze expressed shock by the center's data, declaring “we are now in uncharted territory”.

Kumi Naidoo, the international head of Greenpeace, which held a public forum on Wednesday in New York to discuss the climate change crisis, described the efforts to curb greenhouse emissions and the race to save the Arctic as "the defining environmental battle of our era".

The ice report from NSIDC, coupled with reams of growing evidence about human-caused climate change, said Naidoo, "represents a defining moment in human history."

"In just over 30 years we have altered the way our planet looks from space," he said, "and soon the North Pole may be completely ice free in summer. Rather than dealing with the root causes of climate change the current response from our leaders is to watch the ice melt and then divide up the spoils."

"Rather than dealing with the root causes of climate change the current response from our leaders is to watch the ice melt and then divide up the spoils." —Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace

Naidoo was joined by other prominent figures, including author and co-founder of 350.org Bill McKibben, who said the global response to the rapidly melting ice of the arctic ice sheets and glaciers has been exactly opposite to what's needed. Instead of responding with "alarm, or panic, or a sense of emergency" he said, the response "has been: 'Let's go up there and drill for oil'. There is no more perfect indictment of our failure to get to grips with the greatest problem we've ever faced."

It was fellow panelist and NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who called the current reality a "planetary emergency".

"It's hard for the public to realize," Hansen said, "because they stick their head out the window and don't see much going on."

The science, Hansen added, is "crystal clear" and lamented the distance between what scientists understand about what's happening in the arctic and around the world and what the average person might know. "If we burn all the fossil fuels, we create certain disaster," he said.

As Naidoo indicated by his group's focus on the melting arctic, the dramatic reduction of ice there has been a focus of many scientists because they understand that changes in the polar regions has important implications for global climate system as a whole.

"Between 1979 and 2012, we have a decline of 13 percent per decade in the sea ice, accelerating from six percent between 1979 and 2000," said oceanographer Wieslaw Maslowski with the US Naval Postgraduate School, speaking at the Greenpeace event.

"If this trend continues we will not have sea ice by the end of this decade," said Maslowski.

"'Let's go up there and drill for oil' — There is no more perfect indictment of our failure to get to grips with the greatest problem we've ever faced." Bill McKibben, 350.org

Dr. Julienne Stroeve, a research scientist at the NSIDC, is currently aboard a Greenpeace ship in Svalbard, Norway in the Arctic having just returned from conducting scientific research into the region’s record breaking ice melt. She said:

“This new record suggests the Arctic may have entered a new climate era, where a combination of thinner ice together with warmer air and ocean temperatures result in more ice loss each summer.”

“The loss of summer sea ice has led to unusual warming of the Arctic atmosphere, that in turn impacts weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere, that can result in persistent extreme weather such as droughts, heat waves and flooding.”

Bringing the arctic issue to the local level, Caroline Cannon, a leader of the Inupiat community of Alaska and recipient of the Goldman Prize for her environmental activism, told the audience that her indigenous community depends on Arctic fishing and hunting for survival.

"My people rely on that ocean and we're seeing dramatic changes," said Cannon. "It's scary to think about our food supply."

The panel, as Agence France-Presse reports, stressed "that a string of recent extreme weather events around the globe, including deadly typhoons, devastating floods and severe droughts, show urgent action on emission cuts is needed."

And AFP added:

The extreme weather include the drought and heat waves that struck the United States in the summer.

One consequence of the melt is the slow but continuous rise in the ocean level that threatens coastal areas.

Another result is the likely release of large amounts of methane -- a greenhouse gas -- trapped in the permafrost under Greenland's ice cap, the remains of the region's organic plant and animal life that were trapped in sediment and later covered by ice sheets in the last Ice Age.

Methane is 25 times more efficient at trapping solar heat than carbon dioxide, and the released gases could in turn add to global warming, which in turn would free up more locked-up carbon.

Greenpeace, led by their Save the Arctic campaign, is calling for the creation of a sanctuary in the uninhabited area around the North Pole and a ban on unsustainable industrial activity in the remainder of the Arctic.

"I hope that future generations will mark this day as a turning point," Kumi Naidoo summed up. "When a new spirit of global cooperation emerged to tackle the huge challenges we face. We must work together to protect the Arctic from the effects of climate change and unchecked corporate greed."

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