In the Greenpeace office, staff have developed a bad habit. We take our seats, switch our computers on and click on the bookmark to the National Snow and Ice Data Center website. Today was like any other day, except that today the extent of sea ice melt surpassed that of 2007, the lowest year on record. The plummeting line on this seemingly innocuous graph shows that the Arctic has already lost more ice than ever before in recorded history - and it’s still melting. Across the office it was met with a sharp intake of breath.
Just 30 years ago, the Arctic Ocean ice cap covered an area roughly the size of Australia. Within a few decades, it will almost certainly disappear completely in the summer months.
Back in June when we launched the ‘Save the Arctic’ campaign Paul McCartney was one of our first signees to the Arctic scroll, which has since gathered nearly 1.5m signatures. In his blog for us he spoke of the first time the Earth was seen from space and how that image, of our beautiful Earth rising, inspired a generation and in part sparked the environmental movement across the world.
Without the ice at the top of the world, Earth will look radically different from space – utterly changed from the first photographs we took of our home planet just four decades ago. Our movement must change gear radically in response.
In a sense, the Arctic is where Greenpeace was born. Just over 40 years ago, eleven activists committed to peaceful protest sailed a boat to the Alaskan Arctic to stop nuclear testing. Their struggle was long and hard. But over the years the movement grew and finally, against all the odds, the campaign was a success.
But now we face perhaps our biggest challenge ever.
As The Economist recently said: “Perhaps not since the felling of America’s vast forests in the 19th century, or possibly since the razing of China’s and western Europe’s great forests a thousand years before that, has the world seen such a spectacular environmental change. The consequences for the Arctic ecosystems will be swingeing.”
From the narwhal to the walrus to the polar bear, the Arctic is home to some of the most incredible animals on the planet. For hundreds of other migratory species, including humpback whales, it is a vital summer feeding ground. Millions of people live in the Arctic too, including Indigenous Peoples whose ancestors first settled thousands of years ago. All this is under threat.
I wonder what expression Peter Voser, the CEO of Shell, is wearing today? Could it possibly be one of hungry anticipation? In a tragically ironic twist, as the ice recedes, energy companies like Shell are scrambling to claim the oil that lies beneath the seabed. So they can make more money. By burning more oil. And melting more ice. It’s a vicious circle driven by greed.
The exploration being planned for the Arctic is not inevitable. Like climate change it is not an impersonal force of nature. It is man-made. And it has a cause; burning fossil fuels. And it has an instigator, companies like Shell and Gazprom. And it can be stopped and replaced by investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy.
We want to convince the UN to create a global sanctuary in the High Arctic and make the Arctic Ocean off limits to the oil industry and unsustainable fishing. But we cannot do this alone; we need everyone who cares about the Arctic behind us. We have developed a plan that can make this a reality if millions of people join us to demand Arctic protection.
We’ve done it before. Just over twenty years ago, Antarctica was facing similar threats. Greenpeace led the campaign to turn the area into a global sanctuary. We won that campaign. And now we’re determined to save the Arctic.
It is one of our most ambitious campaigns to date but it can only be won if people and organisations globally join the movement. Everyone needs to grab this historic moment and reclaim the earth that belongs to everyone, animals and humans alike.