President Obama's first hang-out with the new Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau started off with a pretty chill subject: the Arctic.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada (left) and President Barack Obama of the U.S. (right) wasted no time making big moves for the climate in their first meeting of 2016. Photo by Pete Souza / Wikimedia. Creative Commons.

In a “Joint Statement on Climate, Energy, and Arctic Leadership” issued today, President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined together to call for historic actions to prevent the worst impacts of climate change and specifically protect the Arctic from fossil fuel exploitation.

The biggest new development from this agreement is that “commercial activities” in the Arctic — explicitly including oil and gas drilling — should be based on “scientific evidence.” On top of that, those activities can only occur if they are in line with “global climate and environmental goals, and Indigenous rights and agreements.“

Reading between the lines, this is a big deal. Here’s why.

Pack ice melting in the middle of June. Begin of the Arctic summer. © Bernd Roemmelt / Greenpeace

1. Keeping Arctic oil in the ground

Arctic oil drilling runs counter to the international climate commitments made in Paris, including the stretch goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The best available science indicates that 100 percent of Arctic oil needs to stay in the ground if we have any chance of meeting this goal.

The next step is to put these commitments into policy. If President Obama is serious about the agreement reached with Prime Minister Trudeau, he should remove all the Arctic Ocean areas from the next Five-Year Program for offshore oil drilling, expected to be released in the coming weeks. The release of that plan will prove to be the first and maybe most important test of these new commitments.

Further, today’s statement is yet another in recent admissions that current US energy policy is in conflict with President Obama’s climate commitments (take the latest move on federal coal leasing, as well). Although President Obama has pledged to achieve emissions reductions and has advanced a number of strong policies to do that, the US continues to subsidise oil, gas and coal companies by leasing out federal lands and waters for extraction.

This announcement can and should represent a turning point in government policy to start keeping fossil fuels where they belong — in the ground.

Humpback whales feed amongst a colony of seabirds. 2 Jul, 2012 © Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace

2. Marine protection and international leadership 

Along with committing their own countries to action, Trudeau and Obama also used this agreement to call on all other countries to join them, signaling a new era of leadership on Arctic issues. With the US at the helm of the Arctic Council and Canada as its most recent chair, these two countries are very well positioned to push this agenda.

One of the agreed domestic objectives is to “achieve and surpass” their goal of protecting ten percent of marine areas by 2020, and to determine those areas based on consultation with Indigenous stakeholders, using both traditional knowledge and the best available science. Building on that, they’re calling on other Arctic nations to work toward a network of marine protected areas across the Arctic Ocean. Hopefully other Arctic nations will heed that call.

We hope this means establishing a network that includes no-take marine reserves, including an Arctic sanctuary covering the high seas of the Central Arctic Ocean. Reckless industries already view melting sea ice as a business opportunity, but those who contribute to the destruction of our planet must not also be allowed to profit from it.

We hope that other Arctic nations will follow the leadership of the US and Canada in committing to permanent marine protections for the region. These countries should unite to create a network of marine reserves, ban the use of heavy fuel oil from shipping and seismic blasting that threaten Arctic marine life, and reject industrial Arctic exploitation once and for all.

Smoke billowing from the chimney at the Marshall Steam Station in North Carolina. 17 Dec, 2011  © Les Stone / Greenpeace

3. The social cost of carbon

One potentially very meaningful section of this agreement commits the two nations to “align approaches” to assessing and communicating the social cost of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as aligning measures to reduce those emissions. As it’s written, the goal here is to have a common way to assess regulation, which could lead to a process for how the two nations put all of their commitments into practice.  

The vague wording of this section makes it easy to overlook, but this could actually be pretty big.

The impacts of rampant climate change have costs associated with them, most of them steep — floods, wildfires, increased storm intensity, rising sea levels and increases in pathogens cost us lives, property, and money.

The social costs of fossil fuels are rarely considered in government decision-making, but this agreement could be the beginning of a major change.

We’re getting even closer to keeping fossil fuels where they belong — in the ground. Join the millions of people around the world fighting to stop Arctic drilling today.

John Deans is an Arctic campaigner for Greenpeace USA

A version of this blog was originally posted by Greenpeace USA