The poles are in danger, so let’s phase out fossil fuels as soon as possible | Polarjournal
One Planet – Polar Summit has opened Wednesday in Paris. Scientists and researchers from forty countries around the world are gathering in the French capital for the first international summit dedicated to the cryosphere. Glaciers and poles are under great pressure due to climate change, threatening populations, ecosystems and freshwater resources. Image : Jeremy Bishop-One Planet – Polar Summit 

In the context of the One Planet – Polar Summit going on right now in Paris, French glaciologists Lydie Lescarmontier and Heïdi Sevestre have recently published a pledge on polar research, as well as on climate and cryosphere protection, in a French newspaper. We reproduce their call for phasing out of fossil fuels in English and German.

With the Paris Polar Summit in full swing this week, it’s key to remember that neither ice nor people are safe on a warming planet. To protect the poles as well as the high mountain regions, and to guard against the losses associated with melting ice, it is absolutely essential that we get out of fossil fuels.

Lydie Lescarmontier (left) and Heidi Sevestre (right) at the One Planet – Polar Summit. Image: Michael Wenger

We discovered the “Distant South” of the planet as graduate students. When we arrived, we both had that same breathtaking sensation. We’ll never forget our first encounter with the colossal Antarctic ice sheet: a giant, seemingly totally unshakeable. Far too cold and isolated to ever be affected by climate change.

And yet, we are officially in the process of toppling this ice giant. On Monday October 23, an article in Nature Climate Change confirmed that Antarctic ice is melting much faster than expected. Its Achilles heel is in West Antarctica, in the Amundsen Sea area. The conclusions of the study are unequivocal. This region of the distant South is doomed to disappear into the oceans in the coming centuries, no matter what greenhouse gas emissions trajectory we follow. Its disappearance will lead to a rise in sea level of several meters worldwide: in Vanuatu, Liberia, the Netherlands, but here in France too, in Bordeaux or Arles…

Amundsen Sea in West Antarctica. The area has often hit the headlines those last couple of years, notably because of the Thwaites Glacier. Nicknamed the “Doomsday Glacier”, its collapse could lead to a consequent rise in sea level.

“What happens at the poles stays at the poles”. This saying is familiar to all scientists who set off to work in the polar regions. But today’s climate science is clear: unfortunately, what happens at the poles does not stay at the poles. The polar regions are on the front line of climate change, with the Arctic warming four times as fast, the Antarctic twice as fast as the rest of the world. And when it comes to preserving the poles, there is a lot more at stake than the loss of these regions’ ecosystems.

The poles are at the heart of the climate machine. Today, we can’t talk about the cryosphere – all the ice, all the frozen regions of Earth – without talking about the disappearance of this ice as a result of rising temperatures. The Arctic permafrost, which is thawing inexorably, emits the equivalent of the greenhouse gas emissions of a country like Japan, and would emit as much as the countries of the European Union do today – if we reach 2°C of warming. In the summer of 2023, the extent of the Antarctic sea ice showed unprecedented and worrying developments, with a record extent of 2.6 million km2 below average. That’s equivalent to the surface area of a country like Argentina. The loss of ice from Greenland and Antarctica has quadrupled since the 1990s, and continues to contribute to rising sea levels. The last glaciers in the Pyrenees are set to disappear in 10 to 20 years… And last but not least, the disappearance of the Arctic ice pack is jeopardizing our food security by contributing to extreme weather events.

In an article published in Le Monde on October 9, 2023, scientists Valérie Masson-Delmotte, Jean Jouzel and Bruno David reminded us of the fundamental role the Southern Ocean plays in protecting us in part from climate change, by capturing almost half of the heat accumulated in the atmosphere. Their message is clear: France must make a comeback as one of the “great polar nations”. And to rise to this challenge, it must reinvest massively in its polar research and logistics. But these investments, however important, will be insufficient if we don’t move away from fossil fuels as soon as possible.

France decided to hold the very first international polar summit, from November 8 to 10, a few weeks before COP 28 in Dubai. We welcome this initiative, and hope that the France of the Paris Agreement and Emmanuel Macron’s government will live up to this ambition by committing the 40 polar nations invited to the summit to take action to limit global warming to 1.5°C, through an immediate reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions.

The choice of this temperature threshold was not an arbitrary one. It may seem difficult to reach – in a world where the climate targets set by governments are currently leading us to a temperature rise of 2.7°C. Yet the 1.5°C limit is the undisputed conclusion of the most recent cutting-edge research. Even a 2°C world is unacceptable: it would exceed the limits of adaptation for billions of people living today, and for generations to come. Science is pointing to losses earlier and on a larger scale than we had anticipated.

French delegation at the Arctic Circle Assembly that took place last month in Reykjavik, Iceland. Over three days, actors of polar regions discussed the challenges facing the Arctic. Image : Camille Lin

Each additional fraction of a degree beyond the 1.5° target set by the Paris Agreement will increase the risk of crossing thresholds. Some of these losses will be almost immediate, such as the total disappearance of summer sea ice and the acidification of polar oceans. Others will be slower to appear, but unstoppable once triggered.

At the Climate Ambition Summit in New York last September, France announced its intention to join the Ambition on Melting Ice (AMI) high-level group on Sea-level Rise and Mountain Water Resources at the polar summit. This is an encouraging first step. This coalition, formed by 20 ministers at COP 27 in Sharm-El-Sheik, is dedicated to protecting our frozen regions. “Protecting the cryosphere through vigorous climate action is not just a matter for mountain and polar nations: it is a matter of urgent global concern, as the most significant impacts on human communities lie far beyond these regions”. This strong message also underlines the importance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. 
Let us revisit the aims of the Paris Agreement: to protect the cryosphere and thus humanity: this is the ambition on which France, a new ambassador for the poles within the Ambition on Melting Ice coalition, will be particularly keen to focus at COP 28, just three weeks after the polar summit.

Dr. Lydie Lescarmontier and Dr. Heïdi Sevestre

Dr. Lydie Lescarmontier is a glaciologist specializing in the impact of climate change on the Antarctic ice cap. She is Antarctica Director for the NGO International Cryosphere Climate Initiative. She has published “L’Empreinte des Glaces” (Elytis) and “La voix des pôles” (Flammarion).

Dr. Heïdi Sevestre is a glaciologist working for AMAP, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program – a working group of the Arctic Council – and a member of the Explorers’ Club. She is the author of “Sentinelle du Climat” (HarperCollins), and “Demain c’est nous” (Ed. du Faubourg)

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