By Libby Leyden-Sussler
On September 21, an estimated 400,000 people in New York participated in the People’s Climate Change March, a movement designed to raise environmental awareness. It was one of 2,646 marches that occurred across 162 countries that day. The turnout was unprecedented, and it did not go unnoticed at the New York Climate Summit two days later. Global leaders were finally forced to pay attention.
Among the many activists, comprised of students, minorities, and labor groups, were climate-focused campaigners and non-profits such as Greenpeace, which voiced its particular concerns about the Arctic. While this region is rarely a part of climate change discussions, the melting ice in the region is proof that it can no longer be excluded from the general discourse.
According to John Deans, Arctic campaigner for the non-profit, “Greenpeace was at the People’s Climate Change March campaigning specifically for the Arctic region because a lot of the issues directly linked to climate change stem from that part of the world.”
Indeed, after the rally, Greenpeace gave the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon a petition with six million signatures, calling for long-term protection of the Arctic. The region is warming more than twice as fast as the global average. To address the urgency of this issue, Greenpeace and other like-minded groups are demanding a ban on oil exploration that endangers the fragile ecosystem.
Ban Ki-moon accepted the Greenpeace petition, stating, “I receive this as a common commitment toward our common future, protecting our environment, not only in the Arctic, but all over the world.” Ban Ki-moon then informed leaders that rapid warming of the globe was not consistent with planning oil and gas development in the Arctic.
Despite the melting ice, many Arctic governments have allowed continued oil drilling and exploration in their countries. Just earlier this year, Royal Dutch Shell submitted plans for exploratory oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska. In response to the persistent exploitation of the Arctic, Greenpeace and the Canadian company Real-time Interactive Worldwide Intelligence commissioned a survey in early September. The results demonstrated that nearly 75 percent of people in 30 countries support the creation of a protected Arctic sanctuary – a marine reserve that would block out all destructive industries and place strict environmental controls on ship traffic – in international waters surrounding the North Pole.
Leaving the Arctic oil untouched will prevent the risk of major oil spills and also keep the carbon that caused the melting to begin in the first place safely in the ground. In fact, the Arctic contains vast oil and natural gas reserves. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Arctic could contain up to 1,670 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil, or 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of its oil.
The proposed area of the sanctuary is in international waters covering the central Arctic Ocean, beyond the 200 nautical mile boundary of each Arctic coastal state’s exclusive economic zone. This region is technically defined as “high seas” under the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and is universally recognized as the global commons, the shared responsibility of the entire international community. Within the Arctic Sanctuary there will be no fishing, no exploration for or extraction of hydrocarbons or other minerals from the seabed and no military action. The area would be approximately 2.8 million km2, roughly the size of the Mediterranean Sea.
Although not all shipping activity will be prohibited, strict environmental controls will apply to all shipping in this area– heavy fuel oil use will, for example, not be allowed, a practice that has already been adopted in Antarctic waters.
“As we approach the U.N. Summit in Paris next year, world leaders need to realize the problem is getting worse,” says Deans. “The Arctic isn’t going to stop melting, and the world needs to turn attention to alternative energy and setting the Arctic areas aside globally if action is going to be taken to combat climate change.”
Libby Leyden-Sussler is a senior studying journalism and political science at Northeastern University. Follow her @Libby_Leyden.
[Photos courtesy of Libby Leysen-Sussler and SouthBendVoice]
This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.