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What's Really on Trial in the Arctic: The Future

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World leaders and celebrities from Angela Merkel to Madonna have spoken out in defense of the activists called the Greenpeace 30. In September, these occupants of a Greenpeace vessel were plucked from their boat by Russian authorities after staging a protest on an oil rig in the Arctic Ocean, and now face the prospect of spending years in a Russian prison.

The situation has prompted prickly international debates on subjects ranging from the definition of piracy to national sovereignty, and legal disputes that reappeared in the international media spotlight this past week as Russia held long-awaited court proceedings for the jailed activists and a UN-established tribunal ordered their release on $5 million bond.

Underlying these disputes, but sometimes left unmentioned, is a physical reality that brought Russia, Greenpeace, and the rest of us to this point: The Arctic is experiencing a boom in exploration for oil and mineral resources in part because melting ice is giving way to open land and water.

Data compiled by the National Snow and Ice Data Center reveal that since 2007 sea ice has covered only about half to two-thirds the area of the Arctic Ocean in summer that it did in the late 1970s and early 1980s when satellite observations began. The related international scramble to claim rights to the Arctic Ocean made big headlines in 2007, when Russian planted its flag by submarine on the seabed at the North Pole.

The Greenpeace drama is about different issues for different people, but it is rooted in debates about how to manage a changing arctic frontier. As such, it exemplifies a situation that no one concerned with our geopolitical or economic futures should ignore: The Arctic is changing rapidly due to climate change.

This is true of both the natural environment and the human livelihoods built around it, which means that the human impacts of climate change are present-day reality, not reserved for a distant future.

Scientific understanding of climate change was recently summarized in the unglamorously named but rigorously vetted Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change volume released this September. The hefty report stated that "human influence on the climate system is clear." It also stated that "warming in the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia."

Millennia is no exaggeration, as ice cores recovered from Antarctica made it clear years ago that today's carbon dioxide levels far exceed anything Earth has seen for at least 800,000 years. We ignore such information at our own peril.

Yet some advocate for doing exactly that. The usual parade of climate skeptics took to the American airwaves in response to the IPCC report's release, making their case that climate is not changing or that humans are not responsible.

A favorite rhetorical strategy is to emphasize short-term fluctuations or local differences in climate or weather, while ignoring more meaningful long-term global trends. Exemplifying this, some skeptics this fall attributed great importance to the fact that arctic sea ice was more extensive this summer than it was last summer, while ignoring the longer-term trend of dramatically shrinking ice -- not to mention the fact that this summer, although an improvement over last summer, still saw the sixth smallest arctic sea ice pack on record.

It is remarkable that climate skeptics would dare point to the Arctic at all. When looking north, one sees visible evidence for a warming climate around every corner.

Earlier this year, capitalizing on declining ice cover, for the first time ever a Chinese cargo ship travelled across the Arctic Ocean to reach European markets. The Alaska state government is grappling with how to relocate entire villages because melting permafrost, sea-level rise, and larger storm surges are conspiring to erode the land from beneath their feet.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's most recent annual Arctic Report Card catalogued a wide range of ongoing changes in the character of the Arctic and many climate records set in 2012, including record low sea ice extent, the warmest permafrost temperatures ever recorded in northern Alaska, and the longest ever observed melting season over Greenland.

Meanwhile, the continent-sized Greenland Ice Sheet is not only shrinking, but doing so at ever-increasing rates, with consequences for global sea level.

To be sure, there are many legitimate debates about how to move forward in a changing world. The Greenpeace controversy has thrust some examples into the spotlight. But as we debate the outcome of this specific situation, we should also keep in mind the larger, physical reality that extends far beyond the fate of thirty activists and affects every person on Earth.

To begin to cope with the growing pains of global warming, as a nation we need to move past the trumped-up debate about whether climate is changing. It is. The obvious changes in the Arctic are just the tip of the iceberg.

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