“The fate of Greenland is the fate of Miami.”
Rafe Pomerance has been called “the original climate change warrior.” He was profiled in Nathaniel Rich’s 2018 New York Times Magazine article and subsequent book, Losing Earth. At the moment when much of the science was known but there was no awareness in political circles, Pomerance was crucial in shaping recognition by government officials, policy-makers, and the public that climate change is a crisis. In two conversations, on May 10 and August 5, 2019, we talk about his path into climate work; the sequence of his experiences as an advocate, strategist, organizer, and negotiator; his work with Arctic 21 and ReThink Energy Florida; his political assessment of the point to which we have come; and his experience as a “witnessing professional.”
NANCY L. ROSENBLUM: Until fall of 2019 you were chairman of Arctic 21, a network of organizations communicating “the unraveling of the Arctic as a result of climate change” to policy-makers and the public. Let’s start here: why did you choose that organization?
RAFE POMERANCE: Our one-liner is, “The fate of Greenland is the fate of Miami.” The fate of Greenland is the fate of many coastal cities because melting from continuous warming could ultimately lead to twenty feet of sea level rise. We’re not going to see all that in the short term, but we’re already seeing a significant amount. Greenland, the Arctic high-latitude glaciers, Antarctica, and thermal expansion of the oceans are the major contributors to sea level rise, and your (Rosenblum’s) house in North Truro (Cape Cod) is experiencing that, partly due to Greenland. So the interest of the United States is bound up with the fate of Greenland.
A question frames our work in Arctic 21: what is the future state of the Arctic? Or, what is the Arctic we must have to sustain the global climate system? These are different versions of the same question, and governments have to answer the question, or should. Governments have to figure out what is required if we’re going to have any chance of achieving climate sustainability. Remember when the earth is 2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial times, which is coming up on us, the Arctic will be about 5 degrees Celsius warmer: that’s two-and-a-half times the earth’s global average. The question, again, is what do scenarios of the future look like? And how are governments going to decide where we end up? Because one way or another, they must decide.
NR: Where does the U.S. government stand today on the Arctic?
RP: This is an interesting week to talk about that (May 10, 2019) because it was one of the worst weeks ever for the U.S. government with regard to the Arctic. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went, as he should, to a biannual meeting of the foreign ministers of the eight Arctic countries (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States). They got together to approve a declaration about what they’ve done, what they’re going to do, what their focus should be. The United States negotiated and then refused to accept a draft declaration that included attention to climate change as an element of the Council’s program.
The only statement Pompeo made related to climate was that as we lose sea ice, ship channels are opening up. He didn’t talk about the other aspects of sea ice, or any other aspect of the Arctic that is falling apart. He wouldn’t acknowledge climate change, and he blocked agreement on the declaration because the United States wouldn’t accept any reference to warming–a reference other governments had to have in their declaration of purpose.
Pompeo instead made speeches attacking China and Russia as military and economic competitors. This performance was arrogant and inappropriate. To talk about competition is one thing, but to do it at the Arctic Council, which is a multilateral organization focused on the environment that has deliberately kept broader political issues at bay is another. He missed the point. The point is that the unraveling of the Arctic is a threat to U.S. national interests.
NR: You made the striking statement: “The fate of Greenland is the fate of Miami.” What led you to that realization? This statement is one of many examples of you speaking eloquently as a witness.
RP: There are two parts to the answer. One is the scientific part: Greenland is the largest sources of sea level rise today. The second part is political: Florida is the potential epicenter of climate politics. Florida is the most important purple state, a competitive swing state that could go either Republican or Democratic in presidential elections. It is existentially threatened by sea level rise. So if you can make the connection between the Arctic and Florida, you can make a powerful case for action.
. . .