With sea ice at record low levels this winter, the Arctic needs us now perhaps more than ever. Last week, a vote in the European Parliament showed that Arctic protection has become an established conversation in the corridors of power – but we don’t need words; we need action.
An Arctic sanctuary would give permanent protection to the area covering the international waters around the North Pole. Its creation would show that humans can respond to tragedy with hope and that, instead of exploiting every last wild place, we can hold back the drillers and trawlers that are encroaching on the Arctic as the sea ice melts.
Floating Arctic sea ice in 2016.
But being hopeful is not enough; we also need to be smart. Always happy to take advice from clever people, I was attracted to this quote from Albert Einstein: “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Can this advice be useful for those of us campaigning for Arctic protection?
A lesson that we surely have to learn from history is that hopeful words are no substitute for action. The European Parliament second resolution on the Arctic which was voted on last week sends, like its 2014 predecessor, a strong signal that speedy and collaborative action is needed to protect the Arctic from the impacts of climate change and exploitation. Sadly, as with any Parliamentary resolution, the Parliament’s call for action is just that - a rallying cry, which governments now have to firm up with multilateral agreements, new laws and enforcement action to set up the sanctuary and to prevent the harmful exploitation of Arctic resources, from oil to fisheries.
The resolution does set out some concrete action that should follow. For example, it supports the work happening in the UN to create a new international oceans treaty. This could be exactly what is needed to protect waters like the area around the North Pole, but only if it is agreed in record time. The resolution also calls for continued EU work within an international convention known as OSPAR to protect the international waters directly north of Europe – however, this process is currently being blocked by Norway, Denmark and Iceland.
The Parliament backs a ban on the use of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic seas which, if spilled, would cause a devastation but could be outlawed by a body called the International Maritime Organisation. The resolution also calls for a moratorium on industrial-scale fishing, including bottom trawling, in the previously unfished parts of the Arctic. Here, EU governments should and could take an immediate first step and prohibit their own vessels from venturing into such fisheries. Last but not least, the resolution talks about a legally binding agreement to prevent the Central Arctic Ocean from unregulated fishing, negotiations have been going on for years in other forums.
When Einstein says ‘live for today’, I guess we could interpret that to mean we must stay awake to the opportunities that are happening now and to work in and around these forums to get the best results possible - something that Greenpeace intends to continue.
Arctic ice in Svalbard, 2016.
Einstein’s final advice, “not to stop questioning”, is easy to follow because many issues remain unanswered. Given that the European Parliament favours a fishing moratorium in the previously unfished parts of the Arctic, and given that a group of global seafood brands including McDonald's and Young's last year said “no” to the further expansion of cod fishing into the previously-frozen Northern Barents Sea, why are EU governments still allowing vessels to catch fish in those areas?
And if the European Parliament wants to preserve the Arctic, how can it be right that the oil lobby had so much influence over edits to the text? The original resolution was much stronger – calling on the EU to work towards a future total ban on the extraction of Arctic oil and gas. But Norway, which is undertaking a big new push for new Arctic oil, lobbied hard. Norway clearly feels defensive, planning up to 16 new exploratory Arctic wells for this summer, while facing off criticism, campaigning and a big legal challenge.
In the end, simply not enough MEPs stayed strong and the resolution now only talks about a ban in icy Arctic waters. That’s a good start, but it doesn’t take the principled standpoint that any new drilling is too much of a risk for the climate - nor does it define the distance of drilling from the ice edge.
Polar bear swimming in Svalbard.
The reality is that, across the Arctic region, exploration has lost its appeal. For example, Royal Dutch Shell, long at the forefront of exploration in Alaska, abandoned its drilling programme there in 2015. In 2016, Barack Obama declared a huge swath of Arctic waters “indefinitely” off-limits to exploration as part of a joint move with Justin Trudeau of Canada, citing environmental concerns and the unique risk that would be presented by an oil spill in remote Arctic waters.
Yet, with their heads firmly stuck in the sand, a number of EU oil companies, including OMV, Eni, Lundin and DEA, who have licences to drill in the Arctic still push for access. This goes seemingly unquestioned by the governments in their home countries, including Sweden, Germany, Austria, Poland, the UK and Italy.
So, let's keep questioning all governments, including those in the EU, why they are not doing much more to halt new fossil fuel extraction and invest in renewables. After all, it is only by successfully tackling climate change that we can stop the sea ice melt.
Right now oil rigs are preparing to go further north, and closer to the ice edge, than Norway has ever allowed before - sign up here to support a court case that could stop them.
Sophie Allain is an Arctic Campaigner with Greenpeace International.