NOT ONLY HAS it moved beyond the realm of science fiction, but the Arctic ice cap's melting has been much faster than anyone has suspected. That is one of the important conclusions of a report published yesterday at the behest of the Arctic Council, a forum composed of eight nations with Arctic territories, including the United States. Yet the report, produced over four years by several hundred scientists, government officials and indigenous groups, is not sensational or alarmist. It simply compiles the data, noting that because of long-term global warming, average winter temperatures in Alaska, western Canada and eastern Russia have increased by as much as seven degrees over the past 50 years. If the trend continues, about half of the Arctic sea ice is projected to melt by the end of this century.
The report describes some of the possible environmental effects of this change. Many northern animal species, including polar bears and seals, are likely to become extinct. Vegetation and animal migration patterns around the world will shift. Low-lying parts of the world, including Florida and coastal Louisiana, are likely to experience serious flooding. But although the report's scientific conclusions will be the subject of an international conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, this week, the authors intentionally do not offer specific recommendations, political or environmental, on how to halt or cope with these changes.
Such recommendations are supposed to come from diplomats and indigenous representatives who will also be meeting at the Reykjavik summit, however. And already, these are the subject of controversy: Some participants have accused the Bush administration of resisting a mild endorsement of the report and of rejecting even vague language suggesting that greenhouse gas reduction might be part of the solution. Given the thorough nature of this report, and given that the election is now over, that would be inexcusable. At the very least, we hope that the final language reflects a practical, commonsensical and depoliticized approach to what will certainly be one of the most pressing environmental issues of the next half-century.