How Biden administration can help to slow damage and build resilience in a rapidly changing Arctic

Stanford University scholars discuss the Biden administration’s early actions on environmental issues in the Arctic and how the U.S. government can address threats to ecosystems, people and infrastructure in the fastest-warming place on Earth.

By Josie Garthwaite

“A climate in crisis,” President Biden said in his inauguration speech, is among a cascade of challenges in a “winter of peril and possibility.”

Few places face more urgent threats from climate change than the Arctic, which is warming more than twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth. Sea ice has radically declined since the 1970s. Within a few decades, summer sea ice may disappear completely – with implications for regional weather patterns, erosion, shipping traffic and oil exploration, as well as extreme weather events and sea-level rise in the U.S. and around the world.

Rapid environmental changes add to challenges facing the Arctic’s more than 4 million residents, roughly 1 in 10 of whom are part of Indigenous groups who have long relied on sea ice and marine ecosystems.

According to Stanford University scholars, the Biden administration can help to slow damage and lay groundwork for a more sustainable future for Arctic ecosystems and inhabitants. Actions they see as key include slashing carbon emissions; hitting the brakes on oil development in sensitive coastal areas; repairing relationships with other Arctic countries; improving fisheries management; and providing resources for Arctic communities to relocate from places becoming unlivable due to global warming.

“Given the speed of change in the Arctic, the sooner that environmental policies are implemented, the more effective they are likely to be,” said Kevin Arrigo, professor of Earth system science.

Executive orders

On his first day in office, President Biden committed the country to rejoin the Paris Agreement, the 2015 international accord designed to avert catastrophic climate change. He ordered a moratorium on oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and a review of the potential environmental impacts of the long-debated oil and gas program in the coastal refuge. He also reinstated Obama-era protections for a “climate resilience area” off the coast of Alaska, withdrawing certain offshore waters and the Bering Sea from oil and gas drilling.

Stanford oceanographer Rob Dunbar

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