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Why melting Arctic ice leaves us cold!

... And the ice continues to melt. (Pic: I. Quaile, Greenland)

… And the ice just keeps on melting…. (Pic: I. Quaile, Greenland)

Since I attended a workshop on “Creating a Climate for Change” in Tromso in January, I have been thinking a lot about the psychological reasons why things are not moving forward on climate change. Although scientific knowledge is growing all the time,  public perception of the need for action has not kept pace. Even in regions of the Arctic where climate change is very visible, a lot of people seem to be unwilling to take it on board. Of course there are people who will benefit to some extent. But the danger of a warming world for future generations and the environment is hard to avoid. Yet there is what you could all collective inaction.  Is it all in the mind? I touched on this briefly in a post from Tromso, but feel it is important enough to come back to in some more detail here.

In connection with climate change, the word “denial” is highly emotionally charged. Her book entitled “Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life” brought American sociologist Kari Norgaard storms of hate mail from right-wing climate skeptics. Yet the academic from the University of Oregon is not concerned with this minority group.

“I think it is a very disingenuous debate that has been manufactured by political interests who stand to lose as the economy shifts away from fossil fuels. What they’re doing is trying to make it sound like there is a debate – but actually there is no debate”, Kari told me in an interview. What she wants to understand is why the vast majority of people who do not dispute the existence of human-induced climate change still fail to translate that knowledge into action in their own lives.

“How is it possible that we have so much knowledge about the urgency of climate change, yet when you look around, it seems that either nobody knows or nobody cares?”. Norgaard sees an “incredible disconnect between the moral, social and environmental crisis of climate change and the lack of a widespread sense of a need for urgent action.” Humans, says Norgaard, are “not getting it” and “carrying on regardless”.

Refusing to accept the obvious?

The American researcher spent ten months studying a community in northern Norway, a country where media literacy, political participation and climate awareness are high. The winter she spent there was unusually warm and the snow came two months later than usual, causing problems for the community’s two main revenue sources farming and tourism. Yet Norgaard observed that the phenomenon of climate change was “invisible in social or political life”. Although stories in the media linked the warm winter explicitly to global warming, residents did not react by contacting politicians or cutting down on fossil fuels. Norgaard attributes this lack of response to what she calls “socially organized denial”: although people are informed about the findings of climate science, this knowledge remains disconnected from political, social, and private life. She sees this as symbolic of how citizens of wealthier, industrialized countries are responding to global warming. In her home county the USA, regions are already experiencing climate impacts with economic consequences. Yet people do not want to accept that it could have something to do with their lifestyle and require unpleasant action.

Climate Change Ambassador in bikini in melting ice, Alaska

Lifestyle and melting ice? (Pic I.Quaile, Alaska 2008)

“People have a real fear about what it means for the world and their future. Then a sense of guilt comes up because they realize that our high quality of life through our use of fossil fuels is directly linked to this problem. Then there is a sense of helplessness, because it feels so large and we see the lack of political response.”

People prefer, it seems, to live as though they did not have the worrying evidence of climate change. Norgaard compares this behaviour to people’s ignoring the holocaust or the dropping of the atomic bomb during World War II: She thinks we are trying to protect ourselves by avoiding unpleasant facts and the need to do something about them.

The greatest communication failure of all time?

Per Espen Stoknes is a psychologist at the Center for Climate Strategy of the Norwegian Business Institute NBI. He says the communication of climate science has failed to take account of psychological defence mechanisms of the sort Norgaard describes. “For a long time it was hoped that just the facts would be sufficient. But there are psychological barriers which stop people taking to heart what climate science is telling us, and these have been underestimated”, he told me in an interview.

Stoknes says people perceive climate change as something distant, in time and place. An IPCC (intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) forecast for 2100 seems a long way away. Melting sea ice or sea level rise in places like Bangladesh or the Maldives seem geographically very remote.

Paradoxically, the better the facts on climate change become, the less people seem to care. Stoknes quotes surveys going back to 1989 in Norway which show a decrease in people’s concern about the greenhouse effect and climate change.”Only four in ten now see it as a problem”.

Another interesting statistic Stoknes quotes shows the public has the impression only 55 percent of climate scientists agree on global warming. In reality, the figure is 97%.Getting the message about climate change across is the “greatest communication failure of all time”, says Stoknes. He says scientists need to lecture people less and engage more in dialogue and discussion. Media coverage also plays a role: “We know about 85 percent of all the media reports about climate have been framed as doom and disaster. We know this gives people an aversion and leads to avoidance behaviour. We stop wanting to hear about the issue”.

This would appear to fit with a downward slide in climate coverage around the globe, says Elisabeth Eide from the University of Bergen, author of various works on climate change in the media. She refers to “climate fatigue” in society at large and in journalists in particular.

How to motivate people to combat climate change?

 If these researchers are correct and the lack of climate action is mainly psychologically motivated, the problem requires psychological solutions. Stoknes says we have to cross the “doom and disaster barrier” and point the way forward. Norgaard too argues for more positive examples and indications of what we could do to change things.”.

Psychologist Stoknes stresses the power of social norms to change behaviour: He suggests campaigns that make people compete with their peers – neighbours, other towns, friends, relatives, at being climate-conscious. He reports the success of an app where people can record and compare how much energy they have used. Another possibility is to make “greener” options the default in all aspects of daily life. “If the normal way a printer works is to use both sides of the paper, for instance, people will do that. Not if they have to change a setting” says Stoknes. A mind-shift away from portraying climate change as a paralysing threat towards stressing practical behaviour that would change the situation could avoid triggering what the experts call “the emotional need for denial”. Any thoughts on that?

Date

February 21, 2014 | 2:28 pm

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Greenland glacier at record speed

Ilulissat 2009

Sermeq Kujalleq glacier at Ilulissat (2009) (I.Quaile)

I have been working on a story about whether the Arctic infrastructure would be able to cope with a shipping or oil spill accident, which is increasingly likely to occur as development speeds ahead. During the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso, I attended an interesting workshop on the topic, where the organisers, the Arctic Institute Center for Circumpolar Security Studies, came to what their experts describe as “worrisome” conclusions. Malte Humpert, Kathrin Keil and Marc Jacobsen presented three incident scenarios involving shipping and oil exploration in the Arctic. Jacobsen’s scenario involved a giant cruise boat with 3000 people on board hitting an iceberg off the West Greenland Coast, near Ilulissat.

In 2009 I was in Ilulissat, working on radio features on climate change in Greenland. This is the Greenland of the tourist brochures, with a constantly changing panorama of icebergs floating past your hotel window – or porthole if you are on a ship. While I was there, the fragility of that beautiful glacier ice was brought home to me.

Icebergs off the coast of Ilulissat (I.Quaile)

Icebergs off the coast of Ilulissat (I.Quaile)

The Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, also still known by its Danish name “Jakobshavn Isbrae”, is the fastest flowing glacier in Greenland (or Antarctica, these two major ice sources being of key importance to global sea level). The icebergs which create the spectacle floating past the brightly coloured houses of Ilulissat, are breaking off from the glacier. Beautiful to look at, extremely worrying if you think about the background. Back in 2009, scientists were already telling me the glacier was speeding up. Now the latest research published in The Cryosphere (the journal of the European Geosciences Union) confirms that the summer flow of the ice mass has reached a record speed. The scientists, from the University of Washington in Seattle and the German Aerospace Center DLR, say the speeding up in 2013 was 30 to 50 percent higher than previous summers. The scientists analysed satellite images taken every 11 days from early 2009 to spring 2013. Satellite technology plays a key role in observing the ice. Two German radar satellites TerraSAR-X und TanDEM-X provide high resolution data that facilitates precise calculations, according to DLR. One of the authors, Dana Floricioiu from the DLR Earth Observation Center in Oberpfaffenhofen, told journalists it had been striking to see how much the glacier was changing within a very short time.

The researchers found that the glacier’s average speed peaked at 46 metres per day during the summer of 2012. This is the fastest ever recorded for a glacier in Greenland or Antarctica. The big surges take place in summer, but the researchers say the average annual speed of the glacier over the last two years is almost three times what was measured in the 1990s. It is retreating by around 17 kilometres per year. The scientists say these speeds were achieved “as the glacier terminus appears to have retreated to the bottom of an over-deepened basin with a depth of around 1300 m below sea level. The terminus is likely to reach the deepest section of the trough within a few decades, after which it could rapidly retreat to the shallower regions some  50 km farther upstream, potentially by the end of this century”.

The huge volume of ice going into the sea from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier is already influencing sea level. The glacier drains around 6 percent of the massive Greenland ice sheet Scientists estimate it added about 1 millimetre to global sea levels from 2000 to 2010. The increased speed of the discharge will exacerbate this further.Badnews for people in low-lying coastal areas around the globe. And this is not the only Greenland glacier melting increasingly.

Summer night in Ilulissat

Summer night in Ilulissat

Coming back to the subject of disaster-preparedness – this glacier is thought to be the source of the iceberg that sank the Titanic in 1912. The Arctic Institute’s scenario indicates that an accident like the “Costa Concordia”, which happened in an easily accessible region with no ice or dangerous weather conditions, would have devastating consequences if it happened, say, off the coast of Ilulissat. Search and rescue, accommodation and medical treatment, lack of transport facilities, poor communications infrastructure, no adequate oil spill response technology for icy waters…. food for thought for companies looking to profit from the changing climate of the Arctic – and the governments that should be responsible for protecting humans, wildlife and that beautiful but fragile Arctic ecosystem.

Photo gallery: Greenland the Ice Island

Date

February 6, 2014 | 12:43 pm

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Sun returns after dark Arctic winter

The sun comes up over Tromso

The sun has come back over the horizon. I can understand why people celebrate it here. At the moment there are just a few hours of light. Now the sun actually appears at around 12. In between the Arctic Frontiers conference sessions, I took a lunchtime walk to see the sun come up. What a difference it makes to how you perceive your surroundings! I cannot resist sharing a few visual impressions with you on the Ice Blog:

Reflections!

Reflections! No reflections without light! We tend to take our light for granted. It’s very special after the winter darkness here.

This would me my preferred means of transport here

This would me my preferred means of transport here.

But others go for a more universal type. Are there snow chains for bikes?

Are there snow chains for bikes?

Of course people dress for the weather. Elegant?

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Traditional, warm, practical.

And a final view of frosted snow trees against the winter sunlight.

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Now back to the science sessions of Arctic Frontiers. The place has quietened down since the departure of the politicians.Remember to check for updates on Twitter @iceblogger

Date

January 22, 2014 | 3:28 pm

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Sustainable Future for Arctic people?

Tromso campus

Tromso campus

It has been a full day at Arctic Frontiers. This was day one of the two-day political segment (science follows from Wednesday). The main message seems to be that Arctic development is going full speed ahead. The Arctic Council (currently chaired by Canada) snd Arctic states will have their hands full in the years to come, coordinating that development and trying to make it sustainable and of benefit to the people of the High North. “Humans in the Arctic” is a very apt theme.

My impression after today’s events is that Sami and other indigenous people still feel a little out in the cold as the planet warms, the ice melts fast and development speeds up.

Sami Parliament President

Sami Parliament President Ailei Keskitalo

Aili Keskitalo President of the Norwegian Sami Parliament (and first female President of any Sami parliament) stressed in her opening address that the changes in the Arctic are clearly impacting living conditions for people in the High North. She mentioned health concerns influenced by climatic change, the accumulation of environmental toxins in food, changes in lievelihoods through new industries, pressure on traditional cultures having an impact on mental health. As indigenous peoples often live close to nature, they are in the front line of climatic change. Traditional industries like fishing, trapping, reindeer husbandry and strong ties to the landscape, imply additional vulnerability to industrial encroachment and other developments, she stressed.

Clearly, mining, oil exploration and the changes that come with them are a huge challenges for indigenous peoples. Challenges and opportunities were buzzwords in today’s sessions. How to help traditional indigenous communities benefit from the “opportunities” of development? Keskitalo stressed the need to respect the human rights of these communities when developing natural resources and changing the environment.

Other high-profile speakers (some more high profile than others – an indication of the priority allocated to the meeting by different Arctic states?) certainly went on a lot about opportunities and making sure the people of the High North get the benefit. But I couldn’t help wondering how much was lip service. This was backed up by informal chats with people in the breaks and some of the questions from the floor. But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating…

Shipping is on the increase in the Arctic region

Tromso: Shipping is on the increase in the Arctic region

It was only in the final session of the day, a panel debate on the Northern Shipping Route, that an ngo representative, Nina Jensen, CEO of WWF Norge, was on the podium. I seem to remember more ngo active participation in earlier years. At that point in the meeting there was finally talk of dangers for rare species,  black carbon increase, additional pollution from shipping through grey water, sewage, the danger of a spill of heavy fuel oil, invasive species in ballast water and such like. Yes, climate change-induced Arctic development brings with it not only opportunities but also risks and threats.

The debate was conducted mainly between Nina Jensen and Felix Tschudi, the Chairman of Tschudi Group shipping company, who was putting the industry point of view. Needless to say the two had differing opinions  before, during and at the end of the debate. It would be surprising otherwise. It was mentioned during the day that the Polar Code negotiations might be successfully concluded in London this week. That, says Jensen, would be an important first step. But it would not solve all the problems.

This is a debate which will continue tomorrow – and, I have no doubt, well after the end of Arctic Frontiers. How compatible are economic development, environmental protection and the health and traditional cultures of indigenous groups in the Arctic?

 

Date

January 21, 2014 | 6:28 am

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Climate change and the polar vortex

Frozen Waves, Chukchi Sea, Barrow, Alaska


(Chukchi Sea, Barrow, Alaska. Pic: I Quaile)

If you live in one of the North American areas hit by the latest big freeze, you may well have been hearing someone say “so much for global warming” over the last week or so. If you live on this side of the Atlantic, you might have been tempted to worry more about climate change if you were being battered by storms or gales. Then there are those here in Germany saying “give me more of this warming”, with the birds tweeting and the bushes blooming as if we were already in the middle of spring.

Date

January 10, 2014 | 3:28 pm

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