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Report of Trip to the Arctic Region by Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Observations on Global Climate Change: July 10-18, 2008

July 23, 2008

We flew with Ted Turner and Sally Ranney from the Americus airport to Goose Bay, Newfoundland, where we re-fueled and then went to the northernmost airport in the world at Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway, at 78º N latitude. We first visited the newly constructed seed storage vault, where 500 seeds of as many agricultural crop species as possible will be stored indefinitely, replaced as the germination time expires. This will provide a backup for national seed storage facilities that are being destroyed by floods, fire, other natural disasters, and human error. After a tour of the local museum, we boarded the "Endeavor," a National Geographic ship operated by Lindblad Explorations. We joined about 110 other passengers plus staff and top scientists and began our cruise. Participants included Madeleine Albright, Tom Daschle, Chevy Chase, Larry Brilliant and Larry Page from Google, CEO of National Geographic John Fahey, Director of the Centers for Disease Control Julie Gerberding, CEO of Monsanto Hugh Grant, CEO of DuPont Chad Holliday, CEO of Aspen Institute Walter Isaacson, Governor of Colorado Bill Ritter, eBay CEO Meg Whitman, and President of Lindblad Explorations Sven Lindblad.

We had two lectures or discussion forums each day regarding global climate change and how we might minimize its negative effects and capitalize on new opportunities, beginning with a panel in which Walter Isaacson (Aspen Institute) interviewed Rosalynn and me regarding my experience as president dealing with an inherited energy crisis (reduced oil imports from 8.6 million barrels/day to 4.3 million/day – it's now 15 million!) and our Carter Center work. Rosalynn connected our trachoma program with environmental issues. Most panelists were CEOs or leaders in politics, government, religion, international negotiations, etc. In addition, we had frequent lectures from experts on ice, oceans, various wildlife, and other scientific subjects.

First, I'll describe our daily activities, referring to the Svalbard region, over which Norway was given sovereignty, with restrictions, after WWI. Then I'll summarize a few things we learned.

The first day (Saturday), we steamed to the Northern end of Prins Karlsforland and returned to the Southern end the next morning, where we sighted about 40 male walruses and went ashore to observe and photograph them. They were lying close together and every now and then a few would rise up. Two or three swam around in the adjacent water. Females and young were several hundred miles farther east. They get together only for breeding. We sighted a lone polar bear later that day, which dove off the ice floe as we approached. It was 69 miles from land! Being a maritime animal, they often swim more than 200 miles without resting on ice. We also approached two humpback whales and took some photos.

On Monday, we entered a fjord near the southern tip of Spitsbergen and approached a glacier, where Rosalynn and I rowed near it in a kayak, approaching close to a bearded seal. There were many birds each day, including quite rare Ivory Gulls. We went ashore near a very high cliff, almost covered with nesting birds. Eugenia Choi serenaded us with her violin while the bird calls provided an accompaniment. We got up early Tuesday to view a remarkable sight of two large bears feeding on a ring seal while a smaller one swam around and then climbed out on a nearby floe. The larger bear then swam over to a nearby ice floe and bathed and dried itself while the other large one slept. We got very close, and they never seemed to be disturbed. Some of the bear experts said it was their best sighting in 24 years. By this time, we were south of Edgeoya Island, in a lot of ice. We then went ashore on the west coast of the island for a long walk, with reindeer around us. That afternoon (Tuesday), we viewed a mother bear and cub roaming around on a very large ice floe, and then we steamed through the Freemanssundet Strait. During the night we moved northwest toward Nordaustlandet Island, whose ice cap is the third largest in the world, after the Antarctic and Greenland.

The next morning (Wednesday), we were at the edge of about 1-2 miles of sea ice with the thick ice cap to the north. We could see 10 polar bears and about 120 ring seals, hunting and being hunted through the holes in the ice, the closest bear at 500 yards. Later we neared the ice cap at 80ºN and photographed waterfalls pouring off the top of the 50 foot thick ice.

During all this time, we were learning about the Arctic from various experts and distinguished passengers. We didn't want the voyage to be wasted, and we explored various ways that we could promote some environmental goals, including the enhancement of alternative fuels, a cap on carbon emissions, and better international cooperation when we have a new administration in Washington. A drafting committee began putting together a brief statement of what we have learned and some ideas for action. During the week we changed from a generally negative attitude (bemoaning the climate changes and blaming the oil producing nations, our own government, competition from India, China, and others for scarce energy supplies) to a positive approach (tapping America's great potential for independence, science, innovation, efficiency, strength when united by a challenging goal, creating millions of new jobs, working harmoniously with other nations, giving special care to the poor who have least caused global warming but will suffer most). [Note: read my 1979 energy speech at Camp David.] The leaders of Google, Monsanto, DuPont, Aspen, CDC, Alliance of Automobile manufacturers, eBay, German CEOs of huge wind-power companies, NGOs, etc. reported on current plans and progress.

During the afternoon, Rosalynn and I went out with Larry and Lucy Page, Tom Daschle, and undersea specialist David Cothran to operate a small Remote Operated Vehicle in about 240 feet of remarkably clear water. We photographed many strange animals (many looked like plants) growing on the bottom and feeding in the current.

We steamed south through the night toward the Southern tip of Spitsbergen and went ashore again to observe a large group of walrus. We went kayaking again alongside the ice cap, Larry Page went kite surfing, and about 25 of the passengers dove into the frigid water. Back in Longyearbyen, we disembarked and flew over Greenland to Bangor, Maine, then home.

Some observations:

  1. The United States is now transferring approximately $800 billion/year to generally adversarial oil producers, increasing to a total of $10 trillion over the next 10 years. (The total value of General Motors stock is about $35 billion.) A key formula is RE<C, or the cost of renewable energy is less than that of coal or oil.
  2. A primary factor, not generally understood, is "cap & trade." The Kyoto Treaty was an international cap and trade proposal. C&T establishes a maximum legal limit on carbon emissions, reduces it every year, puts a monetary value on each ton, and lets the right to emit carbon compounds to be bought and sold. The value now is about $25/ton.
  3. Government subsidies are necessary to develop alternative energy sources: hydro, geothermal, solar, wind, ethanol from cellulose (preferably not from corn and other food crops).
  4. Total polar ice is melting only a fraction of a percent annually, but sea ice is melting about 8 percent per decade (lost 25 percent in the last 30 years). At the present rate, the sea level will rise 20 inches in the next century, but the rate will increase unless action is taken. Storms in low-lying regions (Burma, Bangladesh) are already much more devastating, and Alaskan villagers are being moved. The process escalates when reflective ice is lost and replaced by dark heat-absorbent water.
  5. Millions of acres of trees are being destroyed in Alaska and Colorado (and Georgia) by bark beetles because they now breed three times per year instead of twice.
  6. The globe is fragile. 97 percent of all water is in the oceans, and 97 percent of fresh water is in the polar ice. Food and fiber is produced on 1/32 of the earth's surface, usually only a few inches deep.
  7. The biggest international interest now is how to extract more from the Arctic region (fishing, minerals, transport, military) and not how to minimize global damage. The United States has refused to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, while Russia and other Arctic nations are making claims and taking action.
  8. In general, few business leaders are acting positively, including the National Association of Manufacturers, Business Roundtable, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Business Roundtable recently passed a resolution that their only factor was bottom line profit and financial benefit to stockholders. A few CEOs are acting wisely (DuPont, Monsanto, Google, WalMart). Duke Power recently decided not to build a new nuclear plant but to derive the same power at the same cost from 100,000 rooftop solar panels that will feed into their power grid.
  9. A smart national electric grid is needed, to help equalize power demand during hours of the day and to permit wind, solar, and other energy sources to feed into it. Most agreed that the near future is in electric automobiles.
  10. Overall, the United States (and therefore the world) can act only if the next president can inspire the public and work harmoniously with a bi-partisan Congress, business, labor, science, environmentalists, educators, news media, and others.
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