COP24 President Highlights Risk of Political Instability During NYC Visit

Michał Kurtyka, COP24 president and Poland’s energy minister, visited GlacierHub’s home campus of Columbia University on 24 January. Kurtyka was in New York City for meetings at the United Nations, where he presented the results of COP24 in Katowice and participated in a major UN Security Council debate on climate-related threats.

Before his appearance at the UN, Kurtyka joined Columbia faculty and students for a round-table discussion, hosted by Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP) and co-sponsored by the Committee on Global Thought. Kurtyka gave opening remarks on the achievements of COP24, including a detailing of the challenge of forming international consensus. A discussion followed, which was moderated by Jonathan Elkind, CGEP Fellow and Senior Research Scholar. The conversation centered on climate change issues, including climate-related disasters on international peace and security and the recently held COP24, which is the 24th annual meeting of signatories to the UN Convention on Climate Change.

Minister Michał Kurtyka, COP24 president, celebrates the completion of the Katowice Rulebook in December 2018 (Source: UNClimateChange/Flickr)

 

Kurtyka, who presided over COP24, gained diplomatic fame for his triumphant leap off the table at the closing ceremony in Katowice. COP24 came down to an 11th hour resolution, as many recent COPs of significance, like COP15 in Copenhagen and COP21 in Paris, have tended to do. The result was the so-called Katowice Rulebook, which operationalizes the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Kurtyka praised the Rulebook, which he said “gave life to the Paris Agreement,” providing clarity on how, when, and according to which formula, all the countries of the world must act to achieve their pledged goals.

Central to the Katowice Rulebook is the concept of a “just transition,” whereby countries address social consequences of their shifts toward low-carbon economies.

In high mountain regions, glacial melt is a source for hydropower, a crucial component for many countries to achieve clean energy goals. Runoff from glaciers is also a chief supply for irrigation and clean drinking water. Tension exists in some glacier-fed basins, such as the Indus River, which lies between India and Pakistan—two countries where deep-seated animosity runs high. As glaciers near peak melt in coming decades, these pressures are unlikely to ease.

Minister Kurtyka sat down with Columbia students and professors before participating in major UN Security Council talks on climate change (Source: Carolyn Marino).

 

Kurtyka acknowledged the existential threat climate change poses and its potential to “create inflammatory ground where conflict can breed.”

A GlacierHub reporter asked Kurtyka about the challenges facing countries transitioning to renewable energy, particularly those dependent on meltwater from glaciers. “We have right now more climate and environment refugees than war refugees in the world,” Kurtyka replied. “With big rivers being exhausted, and also polluted enormously, we should expect, unluckily, lots of drama in this regard. Whether we can do something about it, I hope so. It might be extremely painful.”

Minister Kurtyka listens to a question from a GlacierHub reporter on the challenges facing countries reliant on glacial melt water (Source: Michał Kurtyka/Twitter)

 

The following day, at the UN Security Council, on which Poland currently holds a rotating seat, Kurtyka discussed tools for defusing potential climate-induced instabilities. He stressed the importance of conflict anticipation and prevention by equipping nations with early warning information gathering systems, aimed especially at states predisposed to such risks. One such exposed country is the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan. The Kazakh representative, Kanat Tumysh, warned of his country’s increasing vulnerability due to glacial melt, which threatens to exhaust the region’s irrigation and drinking water by 2050.

At the meeting, Pavel Kabat, Chief Scientist at the World Meteorological Organization noted “the short-term effects of leaving glacier melt unchecked include increased flooding.” Kabat added: “The long-term threats will affect water supplies for millions of people.” The WMO chief’s comments marked the first time the international organization has briefed the Security Council on climate and extreme weather issues.

The WMO, seated adjacent Minister Kurtyka, briefed the UN Security Council on climate and extreme weather for the first time (Source: Michał Kurtyka/Twitter).

 

In 2017, a UN Security Council resolution recognized the adverse effect of climate change on political stability. Addressing the threat, though, has been typically left to other bodies like the UN Development Program.

The UN Security Council climate security meeting marks a turning point in the evolution of the way the international body regards climate change. No longer is climate change perceived as a concern limited to development and well-being, but is increasingly viewed as an immediate threat to peace and stability. At the meeting, the WMO chief announced that a position had been established at UN Headquarters for a dedicated WMO officer, an indication of the Security Council’s seriousness. The officer will provide expert information to UN strategic decision makers.

Further Reading

GlacierHub compiled COP 24 implications for the cryosphere in a December post, “Glaciers Feature Prominently at COP 24.”

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Future Sea-Level Rise and the Paris Agreement

The signing of the Paris Agreement in December 2015 signaled the world’s renewed focus on limiting global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius, with a goal to lessen the adverse impacts of climate change. However, one of these impacts, sea-level rise, is already occurring and will continue long after emissions and temperatures stabilize. In other words, policies and decisions made now will set sea-level rise on a course to higher or lower levels. To better assess these effects, a recent paper published in Nature Communications examined the implications of the Paris Agreement’s goals on global sea levels up until the year 2300.

Photo of the Cop 21 logo
Logo for the UNFCC’s COP 21 where the Paris Agreement was signed (Roberto Della Seta/Twitter).

If we are to achieve the 2 degree Celsius goal of the Paris agreement, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must peak and subsequently decline in the near future. This decline would coincide with the removal of emissions already in the atmosphere, through natural sinks, carbon capture and storage technologies, or both; ultimately leading to global net-zero GHG emissions sometime between 2050 and 2100. Most previous studies examining sea-level rise under different climate change scenarios only looked forward to 2100, and though a few extended farther into the future, none had yet to consider the implications of meeting the aims of the Paris Agreement.

The goal of this study was to fill this gap and assess the legacy of the Paris Agreement on sea level rise beyond the 21st century, author Alexander Nauels told GlacierHub. Another important motivation for the study was to investigate the effect of delayed climate mitigation action on future sea-level rise, he added.

Sea-level rise due to climate change is driven by several elements, including the thermal expansion of the oceans as they warm, the retreat of mountain glaciers, and the mass loss of ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland. These elements react on different timescales to increasing temperatures ranging from hundreds (shallow water thermal expansion and glaciers) to thousands (major ice sheets) of years. Thus, emissions today will lock in future sea-level rise well into the future.

Photo of the Drang-Drung Glacier
Drang-Drung Glacier in Northern India. Mountain glaciers like it are one of the elements responsible for sea-level rise analyzed in this study (Source:sandeepachetan/Creative Commons).

To explore the relationship between the provisions of the Paris Agreement and sea-level rise, the study utilized a carbon cycle and climate model composite, together with a sea-level model. These models were driven by fossil fuel and industry emission scenarios that meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting temperature rise to 2° C. These scenarios resemble the IPCC’s Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP) 2.6 scenario where emissions peak by 2020 and then decline thereafter. The emissions in these scenarios were limited to fossil fuels and industry because as Nauels states they are, “…by far the most important emission share when it comes to global decarbonistion.”

The scenarios chosen met either the net-zero GHG emissions goal of the Paris Agreement, seeing a gradual temperature decline over time due to GHG removal by carbon sinks, or a net-zero CO2 goal that would only limit temperature rise to 2° C. Why the two different scenario groups? Joeri Rogelj, another author of the study, told GlacierHub that they wanted to be able to distinguish between scenarios that only stabilize warming, partially meeting the Paris Agreement’s targets (net-zero CO2) and ones that fully comply with the Paris Agreement’s targets (net-zero GHG). This distinction enabled the authors to analyze the effect that delayed or insufficient mitigation action would have on sea-level rise.

Aerial Photo of Antartica
Aerial view of Antartica. The Antartic ice sheet is one of the elements responsible for sea-level rise analyzed in this study (Source: Pylyp Koszorús/Twitter).

There was a stark difference between the more stringent requirements of the Paris Agreement, slowly decreasing temperature through carbon sinks and action that would only stop temperature rise at 2° C. Under net-zero GHG scenarios, median sea-level rise was 73-123 cm, while under net-zero CO2 scenarios the median rise was a much higher level at 116-164 cm. Sea-level rise also continues through 2300 in all scenarios, emphasizing the need for immediate mitigation action, although, the rate begins to slow soon after emissions peak at 0.06-0.7 cm and 0.33-0.49 cm per year for the net-zero GHG and net-zero CO2 scenarios, respectively. Ominously, under net-zero CO2 scenarios, results showed that the possibility of sea-level rise of up to 5 m by 2300 was within the 90% confidence interval.

Figure of the sea-level rise response for partially meeting the Paris Agreement
Sea level rise response from the four contributors analyzed when the Paris Agreement’s goals are partially met (net-zero CO2) (Source: Mengel et al. 2018).

What happens if humanity only stabilizes temperatures instead of meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement?  When the authors compared the net-zero GHG and net-zero CO2 scenario groups, they found that median sea-level rise was 40 cm higher for the net-zero CO2 scenario. Another relevant factor for 2300 sea-level rise is the timing of the emissions peak. If the peak in global emissions is delayed by five years, an additional 20 cm of rise was found to occur in 2300 and when based on the 95th percentile the rise is an additional 1 m.

There is a good chance that global temperatures will increase by more than 1.5° C at least temporarily, with a 2017 study putting the chances of staying below a higher threshold of 2° C at 5%. The authors assessed this possible ‘temperature overshoot’ and found for every 10-year period where temperature rise is greater than 1.5° C a 4 cm increase in median sea-levels is expected. Overall, if global temperatures top 1.5° C no scenario showed median sea-level rise less than 1.2 m by 2300.

Figure of the sea-level rise response to fully meeting the Paris Agreement
Sea level rise response from the four contributors analyzed when the Paris Agreement’s goals are met in full (net-zero GHG) (Source: Mengel et al. 2018).

Lastly, the authors examined the connections between sea-level rise and the Paris Agreement’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), the emission reduction goals of individual countries. If implemented in full, the NDCs would lead to a median sea-level rise between 1.45 and 1.64 meters under the net-zero CO2 scenarios and a median sea-level between 1.05 and 1.23 meters under the net-zero GHG scenarios. 95th percentile estimates for the NDCs were even more dramatic, with net-zero CO2 and net-zero GHG sea-level rises between 4.1 to 4.8 m and 2.3 to 3 m respectively.

Further research is needed to develop more precise estimates of sea-level rise into the future, according to Rogelj. He proposes several concrete steps inculding better continuous observations and improved model development for Antarctic ice sheet instabilities and Greenland ice discharge, both of which contributed the most to this study’s uncertainty ranges.

The findings of this study point to continued sea-level rise up until 2300, even if global GHG emissions reach net-zero levels. However, the authors note that high-end scenarios “can be halved through early and stringent emission reductions,” highlighting the urgent need for fast action on climate change from individuals all the way up to the world’s biggest countries.

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Alaska Governor Issues Order on Climate Change Strategy

Aerial Mt. Muir with Baker Glacier, Harriman Fiord, Prince William Sound, Chugach National Forest, Alaska (Source: USDA Forest Service Alaska Region/Flickr).

Alaska has warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States. On average, during the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed about 3 degrees Fahrenheit overall and 6 degrees Fahrenheit during winter. Alaska Governor Bill Walker has issued an order on climate change strategy with the intention to create “a flexible and long-lasting framework for Alaskans to build a strategic response to climate change,” according to the Office of the Governor. As a key part of the Alaska Climate Change Strategy, Walker has appointed members of a climate action leadership team that will design the strategy and work to investigate ways to reduce the impacts of climate change.

The Alaska Climate Change Strategy is not the first climate-focused policy effort by the state. Nikoosh Carlo, the governor’s senior advisor for climate policy, told GlacierHub that “The Strategy and Leadership Team builds on previous initiatives from former governors and the legislature, as well as the wealth of Arctic research conducted through the University of Alaska.” One such effort, for example, was the Climate Change Sub-Cabinet created by former Governor Sarah Palin’s Administrative Order 238 in 2007. The Sub-Cabinet was composed of two advisory groups for adaptation and mitigation as well as two working groups for immediate action and research needs. Each group prepared extensive reports with climate policy recommendations in each of the four areas.

Order to Support the Paris Climate Agreement

The new order supports the Paris Climate Agreement in light of U.S. actions to withdraw from the agreement. It also aims to reduce Alaska’s greenhouse gas emissions and encourages international collaboration, emphasizing the need to assure a competitive economy in Alaska. The order states that “the State may also engage with national and international partners to seek collaborative solutions to climate change that support the goals of the United Nations 2015 Paris Agreement and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #13, ‘Climate Action,’ while also pursuing new opportunities to keep Alaska’s economy competitive in the transition to a sustainable future.”

Alaska Governor Bill Walker and his wife, Donna, along with Toyko Gas’ Mr and Mrs Hirosa visit Mendenhall Glacier in 2017 (Source: Office of the Governor/Flickr).

Although the governor’s actions sound positive, it’s important to note that they are taking place in a state that favors expansion of fossil fuel extraction at odds with environmental groups. For example, Walker himself has promoted Chinese investment in Alaska’s liquified natural gas pipeline to support additional gas extraction and export to Asia. This gas pipeline project agreement was signed by Governor Walker during President Trump’s trade mission to China last November. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski also worked hard to have the U.S. government allow drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a pristine area where drilling had not been permitted. She has personally expressed ambivalence about the Paris Agreement. For his part, Governor Walker changed party affiliation recently for the upcoming 2018 gubernatorial election, in which he plans to run unaffiliated. Walker has been a longtime Republican, but also ran for office as an Independent. His Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott has been a longtime Democrat. Regarding their decisions to run unaffiliated in 2018, the two said in a statement, “We believe that independent leadership that relentlessly puts Alaska’s priorities first is critical to finishing the work we have started to stabilize and build Alaska.”

Climate Action Leadership Team

In a statement in December, the Alaskan government announced the creation of a climate action leadership team to provide Governor Bill Walker and his cabinet with guidance on climate change issues. The team has a specific task and will be part of the overall climate change strategy to develop a recommended plan of action. On December 12, 2017, Governor Walker appointed 15 members to the team which will focus on mitigation, adaptation, research and response for Alaska. The team members are directly involved in Alaska’s collective response to climate change and have professional backgrounds in science, industry and entrepreneurship, community wellbeing and planning, natural resources, environmental advocacy and policy making. As described by the Office of the Governor, “The expertise of leadership team members includes renewable energy and energy efficiency, coastal resilience, indigenous knowledge and culture, science communication, technological innovation, and transportation systems.”

Alaska’s Northstar Island in the Beaufort Sea, built of gravel six miles off the Alaska coastline, in operation since 2001 (Source:Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement BSEE/Flickr).

Governor Walker has expressed the importance of naming the team as a critical step in advancing meaningful climate policy. “I am proud to present a motivated group of leaders, each of whom brings a range of expertise and interests to the table. Our team members not only represent a breadth of experience across the state from the North Slope to the Southeast, but also have strong networks and resources spanning from Alaska to the rest of the world, giving us a voice in the global dialogue on climate change,” he said in his statement.

Shrinking Glaciers Prompt Action

Glaciers in Alaska have lost about 75 billion tons of ice annually since the 1990s, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Scientific American puts this amount into perspective as they compare it to “the amount of water needed to fill Yankee Stadium 150,000 times each year.” And as a warmer climate melts ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, the sea level is also rising at an increasing rate. Overall, a warmer climate in Alaska has caused retreat of Arctic sea ice, shore erosion, shrinking glaciers, and permafrost and forest fires, with these impacts only likely to accelerate in the coming decades.

Glaciers in southeast Alaska, in the Alaska Range (a 400 miles long mountain range in the southcentral region of Alaska), and along the south central coast, for example, have retreated drastically during the last century. The Muir Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, retreated over 31 miles since the late 19th century, when it was recorded for the first time.

Retreating glacier in Alaska, aerial view (Source: C Watts/Flickr).

President Barack Obama visited Alaska back in 2015 to illustrate the environmental impacts caused by climate change. The Guardian notes that the Trump administration has “moved to dismantle climate adaptation programs” like the Denali Commission, an independent federal agency designed to provide critical utilities, infrastructure, and economic support throughout Alaska. In November 2016, it was tasked with safeguarding towns and villages at risk from rising sea levels.

According to the U.S Government Accountability Office, 31 Alaskan communities have been identified to be at high risk due to impacts of rising temperatures. As stated in a report from 2009, “While the flooding and erosion threats to Alaska Native villages have not been completely assessed, since 2003, federal, state, and village officials have identified 31 villages that face imminent threats.”

Nikoosh Carlo explained to GlacierHub that responses to new state policies or initiatives tend to vary according to whether and to what degree a constituent or group believes that the action represents their interests. In this case, it is undeniable that the state of Alaska is warming faster than the rest of the United States. Quick actions are needed to protect Alaska’s communities and resources.

“The majority of Alaskans are ready to consider climate change impacts, to address immediate actions at the community level, to mobilize research, and strategic action with the State to work toward the energy transition necessary for our vision of a sustainable future,” Carlo told GlacierHub.

A poll from 2017 by the Nature Conservancy asked Alaskan voters what was on the top of their minds with regard to climate change. In this poll 68 percent of Alaskans said that the effects from climate change have already begun, 86 percent said that they support policies that encourage energy efficiency and greater use of renewable energy in Alaska, and nearly 80 percent of Alaskans are concerned about climate change impacts on commercial fisheries.

Alaska’s Transition to a Renewable Future

The trans-Alaska pipeline crosses the Dalton Highway near Milepost 159, between the South Fork Koyukuk River and Chapman Lake, Alaska (Source: Craig McCaa, BLM Alaska/Flickr).

The order states, “To assure Alaska’s continued growth and resilience despite climate challenges requires communities statewide to work together as they have throughout Alaska’s history to pioneer solutions to our most difficult problems.”

Governor Walker further notes how these solutions require the creation of a vision for Alaska’s future that both incorporates necessary long-term climate goals and recognizes the need for non-renewable resources (to meet current economic and energy requirements) during a phase of transmission toward a future based on renewable energy.

An overnight energy transition is not possible. Alaska needs to transition toward a renewable energy-based future. Carlo told GlacierHub that “Alaska’s role as an energy producer and our obligation to protect current and future generations from the impacts of climate change are not mutually exclusive.” The continued development of resources in Alaska is necessary for survival and provision for Alaskans. Carlo further explained that many Alaskans pay the highest energy costs in the nation, while at the same time the state continues to work toward reducing carbon emissions and increasing use of renewables and more energy efficient systems.

“Alaska will need to analyze difficult questions such as the timing, scale, impacts, benefits and risk as we discuss the pathways we might pursue while we diversify the economy and drive a shift to a renewable energy-based future,” Carlo added.

The Alaska Climate Change Strategy establishes a framework for the prioritization of climate actions, based on short-term and long-term goals. “Alaska has a role both in meeting the energy needs of the world even as we work to do our part to produce and use cleaner energy,” Carlo told GlacierHub. “I believe that sustainability rests on our ability to reduce carbon emissions and to correct for climate change. Our children and children’s children should not inherit a world that we haven’t made our best attempt at ensuring its long-term health.”

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Major Report Stresses the Importance of Glaciers in a Global Context

In September, a new report, “Well Under 2 Degrees Celsius,” was released by the Committee to Prevent Extreme Climate Change, a global think-tank group made up of scientists, policy makers and military experts. The premise of the report is to provide governments with practical solutions to implement the ambitions of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations. It emphasizes the importance of glaciers in a global context by highlighting examples of melting glaciers in the Himalayas and Tibet.  

Researchers from a NASA-funded mission examining melt ponds in the Arctic Ocean (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Creative Commons).
To challenge the impacts of climate change, the group proposes a roadmap that highlights science-based policy pathways to give society an opportunity to limit global temperatures to safe levels and prevent a two-degree Celsius temperature increase. Solutions include decarbonizing the global energy system by 2050 and reducing short-lived climate pollutants. Unfortunately, climatic trends show that the global temperature has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius, the authors note. If emission levels stay at the current rate, we can expect to see a 1.5-degree Celsius increase in the next fifteen years, with a 50 percent probability of reaching 4 degrees Celsius by end of century. 

The report uses the Arctic and Himalayas as prime examples of the severe impacts of temperature increases, as these regions continue to warm at nearly twice the global average. In the Himalayas and Tibet, for example, more than 80 percent of the glaciers are retreating, according to data collected by the authors. The South Asian monsoon, which provides the primary source of water for the glaciers, has decreased by around seven percent over the last fifty years.

When asked about the effect of a two-degree Celsius rise on glacial retreat, Eric Rignot, a co-author of the report and a professor of Earth system science at the University of California, Irvine, said, “A two degree Celsius above pre-industrial and even a 1.5 degree Celsius will not be sufficient to stop ice sheet melt. In fact, I think that a 1.5 degree Celsius will still commit us to multiple meter sea-level rise over the time scale of a couple of centuries. My hope is that once we are there, the world will realize that we can do better, sequester carbon and go back to a climate regime from the 1970s to 1980s, which in my opinion was okay for ice sheets.”

The signing ceremony of the Paris Agreement (Source: Martin Schulz/Flickr).
The authors note another concern for glaciers and snowpack in the Arctic and Himalayas: the deposition of black carbon from human activities like diesel combustion and biomass cooking. Black carbon decreases the snow’s albedo, causing surface warming and melting. If greenhouse gas emissions and black carbon deposition increase, these glaciers and mountain ranges will not be able to provide water for many people in the region who rely on connected river systems.

Due to emission trends not decreasing at a fast-enough rate, there is now only a 50 percent probability of achieving the two-degree Celsius goal, and there is a 10–20 percent probability of the warming exceeding three degree Celsius by 2100. To remain below the two-degree Celsius mark, global leaders would have to start on the carbon neutrality pathway by 2020, moving toward 100 percent clean energy as soon as possible. However, the political leaders, corporations, and the public tend to assume that there is more time to take action, the researchers contend, with many people unaware of the severity of the climate crisis.

Shichang Kang, one of the co-authors of the report and a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told GlacierHub, “As a scientist, I hope the international community will work together and take action as soon as possible. However, countries have diverse backgrounds and social and political issues. It seems that we can’t use one measurement for different countries.”

It will be a challenge to remain below 1.5 degree Celsius,” Rignot added. “The problem is to transition to a carbon free economy fast enough. You cannot turn around an economy based on burning fossil fuel overnight to an economy using clean energy. This would be a catastrophe. You have to give it some time.” The report advises leaders to begin decarbonizing the global economy with low- or no-carbon technologies and renewables.

The authors equip world leaders to begin taking action by providing four building blocks to achieve these goals. The first building block includes fully implementing nationally-determined mitigation pledges under the Paris Agreement. The second scales up numerous sub-national and city climate action plans. The third includes reducing emissions of short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) by 2030 and decarbonizing the global energy system by 2050. The final building block aims to make scalable and reversible carbon dioxide removal measures, which can begin removing CO2 already emitted into the atmosphere.

Despite the fact that each country deals with climate change in a different way, climate change remains a serious problem that impacts the global community at large. The question now remains – will we reach our goal of staying below the 2°C mark?

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Life on the Rocks: Climate Change and Antarctic Biodiversity

By now, it’s a familiar story: climate change is melting glaciers in Antarctica, revealing an increasing proportion of ice-free terrain. The consequences of this melt are manifold, and one may be surprising: as more ground is bared, Antarctic biodiversity is expected to increase.

Currently, most of the terrestrial biodiversity— microbes, invertebrates, and plants like grasses and mosses— occurs in the less than one percent of continental Antarctica that is free of ice. A recent Nature article predicted that by the end of the 21st century, ice-free areas could grow by over 17,000 square kilometers, a 25 percent increase.

Members of the shrinking Torgersen Island Adélie colony (Source: Rachel Kaplan).

This change will produce both winners and losers in Antarctica’s ecosystems, according to Jasmine Lee, lead author on the above paper, and the game will be problematic. “Some of the winners are likely to be invasive species, and increasing invasive species could negatively impact the native species,” Lee told GlacierHub. “More isn’t necessarily better if new species are alien species.”

The Antarctic Peninsula, an 800-mile projection of Antarctica that extends towards South America,  is one of the fastest-warming places on Earth, and 80 percent of its area is covered by ice. The many outlet glaciers of the Antarctic Peninsula Ice Sheet primarily shrink through surface melting, which reduces volume, while tidal action spurs calving. Lee and her coauthors constructed two models based on two Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) climate forcing scenarios. Under the strongest IPCC scenario, ice-free areas in the peninsula are expected to increase threefold, and Lee expects biodiversity changes in this region to be obvious by the year 2100. She predicts that some native species will expand their ranges south in response to the creation of new habitat and milder conditions, and invasive species will thrive for the same reasons.

This pattern is already apparent in the distribution of a number of penguin species. As climate warms, sea ice-obligate species like Adélie and Emperor penguin are shifting and contracting their ranges southward, seeking sea ice. Likewise, ice-intolerant gentoo and chinstrap penguins, typical of the Subantarctic latitudes, are moving south as the ocean becomes increasingly free of ice. As temperatures continue to rise, this biogeographic chess will play out increasingly across Antarctica.

Glaciers in the Antarctic Peninsula converge into one calving front (Source: NASA ICE/ Flickr).

“The greater the degree of climate change, the greater the biodiversity impacts,” predicted Lee. She added that counting an Adélie colony in a “real-life ice-free area” was a highlight of her fieldwork.

Interestingly, Lee and her coauthors found that higher biodiversity in the short-term may yield greater homogeneity in the long-term, as invasive species become established and potentially out-compete native species. It’s hard to know how to feel about these ecosystem-wide transitions, said Lee. “The fact that we are driving these changes through anthropogenic climate change should remind us that our actions impact the entire earth, even in what we consider the remotest and most pristine regions. I think we should feel accountable and know that because humans have the power to change the earth, we should do our best to look after it,” she said.

Curious Adélie penguins assess Lee on Siple Island (Source: Jasmine Lee/Twitter).

On June 1, President Donald Trump made a speech announcing the United States’ exit from the Paris climate agreement, obfuscating international cooperation on climate change mitigation. Lee feels this decision sends the wrong message to the rest of the world, but she hopes that the United States will find a way to continue meeting the environmental standards set forth. “America should be a leader in renewable energy technology and policy. However, I am also hopeful that the American businesses and states can reach the Paris accord milestones for America in spite of Trump. And this will show that every city, state or business can have a positive impact regardless of governance,” she said.

No matter the ebb and flow of the political tide, the Antarctic Peninsula is changing. As Antarctic glaciers melt and biodiversity changes, mitigation will require the cooperative efforts of the world.

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Glacier Countries Condemn Trump’s Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

Green Party poster recruiting new members (source: Swiss Green Party/Twitter).

Countries around the world were quick to condemn Donald Trump when he announced his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement. Unsurprisingly, small countries with glaciers, with their direct experience of climate change, have joined this round of condemnation. However, the details varied from country to country. And relatively few voices in these countries have emphasized the connection between their own experience of climate change and their opposition to Trump’s action.

 

Latin America

The strongest reaction came from Peru, where the national government issued an official declaration on June 1, within hours of Trump’s announcement. It stated “The Government of Peru receives with concern and disappointment the announcement made by the Government of the United States of America to denounce the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.” The declaration underscored the actions of Peru in hosting a major international climate meeting that led up to the Paris Agreement, and in being the first country in Latin America to ratify it.

Newspapers in Peru also expressed their condemnation. A center-left newspaper, La República, stated on June 2 that Trump “has turned his back on the world.” The more conservative El Comercio emphasized that the U.S. was isolating itself from the other nations of the world.

Banner protesting Trump’s decision June 6, 2017 (source: NZ Green Party/Twitter).

Jesús Gómez López, the director of Peru’s Huascarán National Park, where the majority of the country’s glaciers are located, told GlacierHub, “This decision of the Trump administration is regrettable. It is a great concern that it works against progress that has been made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” He mentioned his particular concern about the rapid loss of glaciers in tropical areas.

Chile, another South American country with large glaciers, also issued an official response. On June 1, the Foreign Minister issued a statement indicating the country’s “great concern and deep disappointment.” It emphasized Chile’s vulnerability, citing floods and forest fires, and reiterated the country’s commitment to reducing its emissions of greenhouse gasses. Greenpeace Chile spoke against Trump’s decision and used the occasion to launch a petition to oppose oil exploration. The country director of Greenpeace, Matías Asun, called for a national law to protect glaciers.

 

Europe

Iceland’s Minister of the Environment Björt Ólafsdóttir speaking on Trump’s decision (source: MBL/Facebook).

European nations also responded strongly to Trump’s action. In Iceland, the European country where glaciers occupy the largest proportion of the national territory, the Minister of the Environment, Björt Ólafsdóttir, expressed her disappointment with Trump’s decision on June 1. She also recognized that some states, like California, were taking independent action in alignment with the Paris Agreement.

Dagur B. Eggertsson, the mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital and largest city, offered a visible response. He announced on June 2 that the city would shine green light on  Harpa–its music hall and conference center, and an iconic symbol of contemporary Iceland–as a sign of commitment to the Paris Agreement.

Reykjavik mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson being interviewed on Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement (source: RUV/Twitter).

Several Norwegians expressed their concern to GlacierHub. Marianne Lien, an anthropologist at the University of Oslo, wrote “Trump news is no longer even funny or interesting. His withdrawal from the Paris agreement is just another move in a series of events that makes the US more and more marginal in world politics, and especially regarding global climate policy. This opens up a space for others to take a lead, such as the EU and China. Perhaps Trumps withdrawal is a wake-up call to some, and could inadvertently raise even more awareness about the politics of climate change.”

Rasmus Bertelsen, the Barents Chair in Politics at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø, linked Norway and Iceland with Sweden, Denmark and Finland. He stated “President Trump’s speech withdrawing from the Paris Agreement marks a watershed in post-World War II international politics. The five Nordic countries have benefitted strongly from American international leadership after WW II, so an American political elite that chooses to sacrifice this leadership for domestic profit is a major  challenge. They must seek new partners. Germany is becoming the immediate security partner, and China a distant trade and climate partner.”

There were also a number of responses in Switzerland.  The center-right newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung spoke against the US withdrawal, calling Trump’s action “a dangerous, nationalist-colored policy.” A demonstration, led by Greenpeace, took place on June 2 outside the US Embassy in the Swiss capital of Bern. Signs in English proclaimed Trump as a “Fossil Fuel Puppet,” while signs in German called for “Climate Protection Now!”

Demonstration against Trump at US Embassy in Bern on June 2 (source: Greenpeace/Twitter).

During discussions of climate policy in the Swiss Senate, several members referred to Trump’s decision as a mistake. A representative from the Canton of Valais, a member of the centrist Christian Democratic Party, stated that climate change “can be directly observed in the mountains” through glacier retreat, showing the urgency of action on climate issues. Only a few members, from the right-wing SVP (Swiss People’s Party) spoke in support of the US  withdrawal, calling it an “act of reason.”

 

Asia

Among glacier countries in Asia, reaction was particularly strong in Nepal, with an editorial sharply critical of Trump’s action in a leading newspaper, the Nepali Times, on June 2.

On June 5, Nepali youth from two organizations which represent the mountain regions of the country, the Himalayan Climate Initiative and the Climate Alliance of Himalayan Communities, brought a letter to the US Embassy, expressing their concern about “climate injustice” and indicating that Trump’s move would harm Nepal, especially “the people of mountain region with limited capacity to adapt” The deputy political and economic chief of the embassy Stephanie Reed acknowledged the letter and promised to send it on to her superiors. A coalition of mountain NGOs, the Nepalese Civil Society Mountain Initiative, delivered a second letter to the Embassy on June 12. It stated “leaving Paris Climate Agreement is a direct attack and threat to the poor and vulnerable communities of mountains.” Reed also received this and assured the delegates that she would deliver it to senior officials.

Tsechu Dolma, a senior staff member of the Mountain Resiliency Project, an NGO in Nepal, told GlacierHub “President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and the loss of American leadership could lead to tragedies worldwide, especially for climate vulnerable mountain and island nations. We are already feeling the adverse impacts of climate change with glacier lake floods. The Paris agreement would provide Least Developed Countries like Nepal international financing for adaptation. Our survival depends on it.”

By contrast, there was little response in Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. The independent journalist Ryskeldi Satke wrote to GlacierHub that Trump’s action “will certainly have a negative impact on the Central Asian states and in particular, the weakest ones, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with low levels of adaptive capacity.” Referring to the mountain chains in these countries, he added, “We are already witnessing unusual weather patterns in Tian Shan and Pamirs.” However, he noted that in these two countries, where concerns about poverty, corruption and regional geopolitics dominate the news, the “press reaction to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement was literally zero. People seem live in a different dimension when it comes to climate change.”

 

The Pacific

Rex Tillerson at a powhiri ceremony in Wellington, NZ, June 6 (source: US Embassy in NZ/Twitter).

A visit by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to New Zealand on June 6 led to a number of reactions. There were several demonstrations against him. The Guardian reported that Tillerson received a “frosty welcome…complete with middle finger salutes.” Though an internet search did not turn up any photographs of these salutes, there were a number of images of demonstrations and protests.

The official welcome also brought a kind of confrontation.  Tillerson was received with a pōwhiri, a Maori ritual ceremony of encounter. It includes  a wero, or confrontation by a warrior,  which serves to establish whether a visitor is a friend or an enemy. Only after the status of friend has been established do the hosts offer a welcome, with a series of dances, speeches, songs and gift-giving. A photo of the wero confrontation circulated widely in New Zealand.

One Wellington resident, who preferred to remain unnamed, wrote to GlacierHub:

Demonstration against Rex Tillerson, Wellington, NZ June 6, 2017 (source: Nathan Jon Ross/Twitter).

“New Zealand supports the Paris Agreement and the global effort to respond to climate change. Every country needs to play its part. The US and New Zealand have a long history and the relationship has had its rough patches. We may not always agree but there are many values that New Zealanders and Americans have in common. The number of US states and businesses that have said they’re committed to the Paris Agreement’s goals illustrates this.”

 

Overview

In sum, most glacier countries have opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. However, they make relatively few references to glaciers directly. This pattern is a contrast with the small island states. Like the glacier countries, they have been strongly affected by climate change and have spoken in opposition to Trump’s action. The Alliance of Small Island States issued a declaration against it on June 1.

However, the small island countries directly reference sea level rise as a reason for their opposition.  The Seychelles ambassador to the UN stated on June 3 that  islands could “literally disappear off the face of the earth” On June 4, the former president of the Maldives described Trump’s action as a “death sentence” for his nation.

As climate politics continues to unfold, glacier countries may travel down the path that the small island states have taken by forming an association or council, or at least by recognizing their commonalities. The few references to glaciers this month may be an early sign of such awareness. Another opportunity to build connections is arising as well. In next two years, glacier countries and island countries will both be discussed in the meetings for a Special Report on Oceans and the Cryosphere that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is preparing.  New forms of climate politics may well take shape as the Paris Agreement advances.

 

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Roundup: Clean Climbing, Subglacial Discharges, and Nepali Youth

Denali NPS Encourages ‘Clean Climbing’

From the National Park Service: “A decade of scientific research has produced conclusive results – human waste left behind by climbers is polluting the streams and rivers that flow out of the Kahiltna Glacier. Our ultimate goal is to require 100% removal of all human waste from Denali, and we will continually strive to develop practical, working solutions to achieve this goal. We will be learning from your participation how to best to manage this next phase of ‘Clean Climbing’ on Denali.”

You can read more about how the Park Service is encouraging these practices here.

Climbers who remove all of their own waste will receive this flag from the Park Service as a reward (source: National Park Service).

 

A Forager’s Paradise for Seabirds

From Scientific Reports: “We found that tidewater glacier bays were important foraging areas for surface feeding seabirds, kittiwakes in particular. Such sites, rich in easily available food and situated in the fjord close to colonies, are used as supplementary/contingency feeding grounds by seabirds that otherwise forage outside the fjord. For kittiwakes these areas are of great significance, at least temporarily. Such an opportunity for emergency feeding close to the colony when weather conditions beyond the fjord are bad may increase the breeding success of birds and buffer the adverse consequences of climatic and oceanographic changes.”

Find out more about why these areas are so abundant here.

Researchers mapped the foraging hotspots of Kittiwake seabirds (source: Scientific Reports).

 

Nepali Youth Appeal to Trump

From The Himalayan Times: “Nepali Youth and Mountain Community Dwellers have appealed to U.S. President Donald Trump to take back his decision to pull out of the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. An appeal letter was submitted to the U.S. embassy here on Monday by Nepali youth representing people living in the foothills of the Himalayan peaks, including the tallest Mount Everest.  The letter was handed over to deputy political and economic chief of the U.S. embassy Stephanie Reed.”

Read more about why Nepalese people are so concerned over Trump’s decision here.

President Trump has withdrawn the United States from the Paris Climate Accord (source: Gage Skidmore/Flickr).
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Cracks in the Paris Agreement

Major cracks have appeared in recent months in Petermann Glacier in Greenland and the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica. These cracks are advancing and will soon release enormous icebergs into the ocean, one the size of the state of Delaware. They will allow ice from the interior of Greenland and Antarctica to flow into the ocean, contributing to sea level rise. Coastal areas in the U.S. will experience increased flooding, disrupting ports and airports, and interfering with the American economy that Trump claims to support, as well as causing harm to societies and ecosystems around the world.

 

And today a major crack appeared in the Paris Agreement, with Trump’s announcement of his intention to pull the U.S. out of it. This crack threatens to release, not icebergs, but distrust and despair, and disrupt the mechanisms that had begun to slow down global greenhouse gas emissions. This crack— in policy agreements rather than in masses of ice— can be sealed, by efforts of other countries, and of states and cities in the United States and by actions of the corporations and organizations that sought to keep the U.S. in the agreement.

 

The laws of physics indicate that ice will continue to flow from Greenland and Antarctica, at least as long as global warming is not abated. But the processes within global society are not as inevitable. With concerted action, the Paris Agreement can still be a vital force to preserve our planet from one of the greatest threats it has ever faced.
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Glacier Countries Help the Paris Agreement Enter into Force

Small Glacier Countries Take a Big Step

Paris Agreement Tracker, October 6, 2016 (source: WRI)
Paris Agreement Tracker, October 6, 2016 (source: WRI)

On October 5, several small mountain countries with glaciers—Austria, Bolivia, and Nepal—undertook an important step in advancing global action on climate change. They helped the Paris Agreement reach the threshold to enter into force and become legally binding. This Agreement, the outcome of the UNFCCC COP21 last November, is widely recognized as the most important international accord to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

For the Agreement to enter into force, two conditions had to be met. The Agreement had to be ratified by at least 55 Parties to the UNFCCC, and these Parties—nearly all of them nations—had to account in total for at least 55% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Both of these steps were completed on October 5 through the ratification by 10 nations, including the three mentioned above, and one additional party, the European Union. This step closely follows the ratification by another small glacier country, New Zealand, on October 4. According to the terms of the Agreement, its entry into force will take place 30 days after the two conditions were met. That will occur on November 4, at COP22 in Marrakech. Morocco.

Minister and parliamentarians discussing climate change in Kathmandu (source: Batu Krishna Uprety/Twitter)
Minister and parliamentarians discussing climate change in Kathmandu (source: Batu Krishna Uprety/Twitter)

Though each country had taken many factors into consideration as it weighed the possibility of ratification, it is striking that some mentioned glaciers specifically. Nepal’s official statement comments, “Nepal highlights that the Paris Agreement is a living instrument meant for serious implementation, in tandem with 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and hopes that its sincere implementation would help us adapt and mitigate the recurring problems such as landslides, floods, melting of glaciers, erratic and extreme weather patterns, and loss of biodiversity directly affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.”

The somber tone of this statement suggests a broad awareness of the threat of climate change in that country, where the ratification was the product of a unanimous vote in Nepal’s Parliament. Such moments of unity are rare in a country marked by fractious politics.

New Zealand deposits instrument of ratification at UN (source: Paula Bennett/Twitter)
New Zealand deposits instrument of ratification at UN (source: Paula Bennett/Twitter)

There was also strong agreement in New Zealand, where parliamentary votes are often highly contested. This point was noted by the country’s Minister for Climate Change, Paula Bennett—a person of mixed indigenous Maori and European heritage—in her statement to the press. “I’d like to thank the select committee and my parliamentary colleagues for the cross-party support of New Zealand’s involvement in this significant agreement.” She emphasized the importance of the event. “New Zealand has helped make history today by ratifying the Paris Agreement. … Although New Zealand contributes only a small proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions, our contribution counts.”

 

Earlier Actions on the Paris Agreement

These recent actions follow on the steps taken by other countries, which ratified the Agreement earlier and brought it closer to the 55/55 threshold. Of particular importance were the small island states, who were among the first to ratify when it opened on April 22. China and the United States both agreed to ratify on September 5, when the two heads of state, Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, met in Hangzhou.

Signing of Peru's instrument of ratification, Lima (source:MINAM)
Signing of Peru’s instrument of ratification, Lima (source:MINAM)

Peru, another glacier country, was also an early ratifier. It undertook this step on July 22, the first Latin American country to do so, in a major event attended by the President, Ollanta Humala, and the ministers of foreign relations, of the environment and of culture. The official statement by the Ministry of Foreign Relations linked the Paris Agreement to COP20, held in Peru in 2014, where the Lima Call for Climate Action was signed.

Benjamin Morales, the director of Peru’s National Research Institute for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (INAIGEM), explicitly linked his country’s attention to glaciers and its early ratification. In an email interview, he stated, “Peru is one of the countries that is most vulnerable to climate change. With the creation of INAIGEM [in 2015], it showed its commitment to carry out concrete actions to combat climate change.” The ratification of the Agreement was another such action, he added.

Jorge Recharte, the director of the Andean Program at the Mountain Institute, also underscored this link. In an interview, he stated

Peru ratified the Paris agreement on July 22, 2016. This step culminated an incremental process of climate awareness in the nation that, in no small part, was driven by the rapid recession of glaciers in Peru’s 19 ranges. Peru’s mountain agenda was promoted by civil society and government agencies since the International Year of Mountains in 2002. COP20 in Lima Peru, culminated a period of over ten years in which Peru was an active stakeholder promoting global action to deal with climate change. During this process one of the main difficulties to promote the Mountain Agenda more forcefully was the lack of harmony in strategies and control of the process between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the technical agencies in the country, initially with the National Council for the Environment (CONAM). With the creation of the Ministry of Environment (MINAM) in 2008, the mountain agenda was eventually moved to MINAM’s Directorate of Biodiversity. Thu, while Peru has on the one hand taken action internally to respond to climate change impacts on mountains, on the other hand its role engaging other mountain countries to negotiate support and promote more visibility of mountain peoples in the global arena has unfortunately faded. With the signing of the Paris Agreement, cooperation among mountain countries is more relevant than ever in order to jointly promote the incorporation of mountain needs in climate and development mechanisms (e.g. the Green Climate Fund (GCF) or the UN Millenium Development Goals).

Iceland's Minister of Foreign Affairs deposits instrument of ratification (source: Lilja Alfredsfottir/Twitter)
Iceland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs deposits instrument of ratification (source: Lilja Alfredsfottir/Twitter)

Other small glacier countries were important early ratifiers, including Norway on June 20 and Iceland on September 21. These two countries may have taken this step earlier since they are not members of the European Union and could act in advance of other European countries. Iceland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Lilja Alfreðsdóttir described the ratification as an act of solidarity. “By ratifying the Paris Agreement, Iceland has joined hands with a number of countries in paving the way for this immensely important global agreement to enter into force as soon as possible, ” she said. “Iceland stands shoulder to shoulder with many of the world’s most ambitious states when it comes to addressing climate change.”

Several small glacier countries—Chile, Switzerland, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Bhutan–are among the group of countries which have not yet signed the Agreement.

Ryskeldi Satke, a journalist in Kyrgyzstan, wrote to GlacierHub, “It is difficult to say when Kyrgyzstan will ratify the Paris Agreement. The Kyrgyz government took a step forward by signing it and the ratification should follow as expected.” He noted “the Tian Shan, Kyrgyzstan’s main mountain range, have been dramatically losing glacier mass in the last 50 years. This process is not likely to stop.  Climate change is going to be one of the challenging tasks for the country to deal with in the decades ahead. Certainly, Paris Agreement is a positive step for the Central Asian nation because Kyrgyzstan is not capable to manage climate change impact on its own.”

Matthias Jurek, a Programme Management Officer of UN Environment working on mountain ecosystems, offered his views of the actions of the small glacier countries as a set. He warned against overinterpreting the lack of ratification by a few of them. In an interview with GlacierHub, he wrote, “I would be very cautious in making assumptions…about the background why certain (mountainous) countries have not yet deposited their instrument of ratification. The procedures of ratification processes… can be very time-consuming. I would not question the political will of these countries.”

Jurek concluded “the mountain countries that have already deposited their instrument of ratification [serve] a good and positive signal to inspire others to do the same.”

It is striking to see how small island countries were among the first to ratify the Agreement, and how small glacier countries were among the ones to bring it into force. The melting of glaciers in the latter contributes to the sea level rise that impacts the former. In both cases, small vulnerable countries played large roles in addressing problems which they face–and which the whole world faces as well.

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Why Didn’t These Two Glacier Countries Sign the Paris Accord?

Earth Day, April 22, marked a major step forward in global efforts to address climate change when 175 parties gathered in New York to sign the Paris Agreement, the accord that had been adopted last December. The ceremony at the United Nations Headquarters marked the historical record for first-day signatures on an international agreement.  This event marks a strong commitment to the next phase of the process, in which countries deposit the technical documents known as “instruments of ratification,” which spell out in greater detail the steps that they will take to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said: “Today is a remarkable, record-breaking day in the history of international cooperation on climate change and a sustainable future for billions of people alive today and those to come.”  

Countries with glaciers have already experienced the impact of climate change directly. Did this make them more likely to sign the agreement? The large countries with glaciers, like the US, China, India, Pakistan, Russia, Italy, and France, all signed. However, not all of the smaller countries did.

By GlacierHub’s reckoning, there are 11 such small glacier countries. Nine of them signed: Iceland, Norway, Austria, Switzerland, Nepal, Bhutan, Peru, Tajikistan, and New Zealand.

Chile was one of the two that did not participate. Their failure to attend the ceremony in New York will not prevent them from joining, since the signing period remains open for a year. The leaders in that country, who otherwise would have traveled to New York, remained in Chile to mark the death of Patricio Aylwin, the 97-year-old former president who passed away on April 19. Aylwin was elected to power in 1990, marking the return to democracy in the country after 17 years of military rule under Augusto Pinochet, who had deposed the democratically-elected Socialist president, Salvador Allende, in a coup.

Ala-Too Square (former Lenin Square), Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Ala-Too Square, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. (Source: Stefan Krasowski via Flickr)

The other country that did not sign was Kyrgyzstan, despite the fact that it had a significant delegation at COP21 in Paris last year. The reasons for its failure to participate are more complex. Leaders in that country may also have had their attention distracted by national events. A new prime minister, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, assumed office on April 13, replacing Temir Sariyev, who had held the position for less than a year.  

To understand Kyrgyzstan’s absence, GlacierHub contacted a number of people in Central Asia.

One of our contacts wrote that they had heard that Kyrgyzstan will sign the Paris Agreement this fall. “It’s a [pitiful] situation. The country could have at least sent an intention of signing the agreement,” this person wrote. “In the meantime, Kyrgyzstan is going through the internal process of discussion over the Paris agreement, which didn’t take place before COP 21 in December 2015. … [T]he ratification of the Paris agreement could have been organized after government signing the agreement, but the process is taking place now.”

Another, writing in a tone that suggests greater disappointment, stated: “This is a very sad story… The agreement was not properly discussed between the ministries. They will sign, but later. Certainly not a good sign about the capacities of the responsible bodies.”

A third, seemingly resigned to such delays, told us: “I am not surprised given the chaos in the government. …   It has to do with simple government bureaucratic capacity. A new Prime Minister was appointed only recently and a Paris agreement is not exactly something the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would put on the top of the agenda signing in the middle of an economic crisis.” In a follow-up email, this person added, “You can’t imagine how screwed up the machinery of government is in reality.”

Taken together, these statements make it seem much more likely than not that Kyrgyzstan will join the other glacier countries in signing this crucial agreement.

Kyrgyz in Paris COP21
Discussion on 5 December 2015 of Kyrgyz and Tajik delegations to COP21, with Christian Huggel and Ben Orlove, to plan 8 December meeting (source: Svetlana Jumaeva)

“Kyrgyzstan’s persistent problem is political indeterminacy,” Scott Horton, a lecturer at Columbia Law School, told GlacierHub, underscoring the reasons that others had offered for the delay. “And this in turn shows that Kyrgyzstan, unlike most of its neighbors, takes the process of democratic consensus formation very seriously.”

Another source told us that on April 25, the group of Kyrgyz delegates to Paris, concerned about the comments that they had received about their country’s lack of participation, began to talk about possible actions. This source indicated that they are discussing which specific organizations to mobilize to develop a response–a step that supports Horton’s account of the seriousness of their deliberations.

The small island states offer a useful contrast. Of the 37 members of the Association of Small Island States, 35 of them signed. The only two that did not participate have very small populations (the Cook Islands, with roughly 10,000 inhabitants, and tiny Niue, whose population barely exceeds 1,000), and, moreover, some of their international affairs are handled by New Zealand, with whom they have long-standing relations. Indeed, 13 of these small island states were among the 15 countries who submitted their instruments of ratification on the same day. These countries are diverse, and some of them have political systems that, like Kyrgyzstan, lack coordination among ministries and have frequent turnover of leadership.

One significant difference is that they have a long history of coordination on international climate accords—a striking difference with the small glacier states, some of whom cooperate on specific issues such as glacier monitoring and the management of glacier-related hazards, but who do not work together so closely.  This contrast suggests the importance of such coordination in allowing small vulnerable countries to participate effectively in the arena of international climate politics.

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Why Didn’t These Two Glacier Countries Sign the Paris Agreement?

Earth Day, April 22, marked a major step forward in global efforts to address climate change when 175 parties gathered in New York to sign the Paris Agreement, the accord that had been adopted last December. The ceremony at the United Nations Headquarters marked the historical record for first-day signatures on an international agreement.  This event marks a strong commitment to the next phase of the process, in which countries deposit the technical documents known as “instruments of ratification,” which spell out in greater detail the steps that they will take to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said: “Today is a remarkable, record-breaking day in the history of international cooperation on climate change and a sustainable future for billions of people alive today and those to come.”  

Countries with glaciers have already experienced the impact of climate change directly. Did this make them more likely to sign the agreement? The large countries with glaciers, like the US, China, India, Pakistan, Russia, Italy, and France, all signed. However, not all of the smaller countries did.

By GlacierHub’s reckoning, there are 11 such small glacier countries. Nine of them signed: Iceland, Norway, Austria, Switzerland, Nepal, Bhutan, Peru, Tajikistan, and New Zealand.

Chile was one of the two that did not participate. Their failure to attend the ceremony in New York will not prevent them from joining, since the signing period remains open for a year. The leaders in that country, who otherwise would have traveled to New York, remained in Chile to mark the death of Patricio Aylwin, the 97-year-old former president who passed away on April 19. Aylwin was elected to power in 1990, marking the return to democracy in the country after 17 years of military rule under Augusto Pinochet, who had deposed the democratically-elected Socialist president, Salvador Allende, in a coup.

Ala-Too Square (former Lenin Square), Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Ala-Too Square, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. (Source: Stefan Krasowski via Flickr)

The other country that did not sign was Kyrgyzstan, despite the fact that it had a significant delegation at COP21 in Paris last year. The reasons for its failure to participate are more complex. Leaders in that country may also have had their attention distracted by national events. A new prime minister, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, assumed office on April 13, replacing Temir Sariyev, who had held the position for less than a year.  

To understand Kyrgyzstan’s absence, GlacierHub contacted a number of people in Central Asia.

One of our contacts wrote that they had heard that Kyrgyzstan will sign the Paris Agreement this fall. “It’s a [pitiful] situation. The country could have at least sent an intention of signing the agreement,” this person wrote. “In the meantime, Kyrgyzstan is going through the internal process of discussion over the Paris agreement, which didn’t take place before COP 21 in December 2015. … [T]he ratification of the Paris agreement could have been organized after government signing the agreement, but the process is taking place now.”

Another, writing in a tone that suggests greater disappointment, stated: “This is a very sad story… The agreement was not properly discussed between the ministries. They will sign, but later. Certainly not a good sign about the capacities of the responsible bodies.”

A third, seemingly resigned to such delays, told us: “I am not surprised given the chaos in the government. …   It has to do with simple government bureaucratic capacity. A new Prime Minister was appointed only recently and a Paris agreement is not exactly something the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would put on the top of the agenda signing in the middle of an economic crisis.” In a follow-up email, this person added, “You can’t imagine how screwed up the machinery of government is in reality.”

Taken together, these statements make it seem much more likely than not that Kyrgyzstan will join the other glacier countries in signing this crucial agreement.

Kyrgyz in Paris COP21
Discussion on 5 December 2015 of Kyrgyz and Tajik delegations to COP21, with Christian Huggel and Ben Orlove, to plan 8 December meeting (source: Svetlana Jumaeva)

“Kyrgyzstan’s persistent problem is political indeterminacy,” Scott Horton, a lecturer at Columbia Law School, told GlacierHub, underscoring the reasons that others had offered for the delay. “And this in turn shows that Kyrgyzstan, unlike most of its neighbors, takes the process of democratic consensus formation very seriously.”

Another source told us that on April 25, the group of Kyrgyz delegates to Paris, concerned about the comments that they had received about their country’s lack of participation, began to talk about possible actions. This source indicated that they are discussing which specific organizations to mobilize to develop a response–a step that supports Horton’s account of the seriousness of their deliberations.

The small island states offer a useful contrast. Of the 37 members of the Association of Small Island States, 35 of them signed. The only two that did not participate have very small populations (the Cook Islands, with roughly 10,000 inhabitants, and tiny Niue, whose population barely exceeds 1,000), and, moreover, some of their international affairs are handled by New Zealand, with whom they have long-standing relations. Indeed, 13 of these small island states were among the 15 countries who submitted their instruments of ratification on the same day. These countries are diverse, and some of them have political systems that, like Kyrgyzstan, lack coordination among ministries and have frequent turnover of leadership.

One significant difference is that they have a long history of coordination on international climate accords—a striking difference with the small glacier states, some of whom cooperate on specific issues such as glacier monitoring and the management of glacier-related hazards, but who do not work together so closely.  This contrast suggests the importance of such coordination in allowing small vulnerable countries to participate effectively in the arena of international climate politics.

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