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CWA # 161, 6 September 2019

Climate Change
From Okjökull to OK: Death of a Glacier in Iceland

  Rashmi Ramesh

Unless big powers take a firm initiative, international agreements on climate change will fail to operationalize.

Rashmi Ramesh is a PhD Scholar at the School of Conflict and Security Studies in NIAS
 
On 19 August 2019, a group of mourners led by Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir gathered to commemorate the death of a first big glacier of the country. Okjökull, a glacier in Iceland, was declared as a monument. Glaciers provide profound evidence to the extent of climate change and global warming. 

Recent developments in Iceland reiterate that there needs to be a serious course of action in the direction of combating the pace of climate change. But, is it only Iceland’s concern? 

 

Death of a Glacier in Iceland: Okjökull becomes Ok
The Arctic undoubtedly is the poster-child of climate change, where warming is taking place at a pace comparable to no other region across the world. The recent victim is Iceland’s glacier Okjökull, which was declared dead in the year 2014 by the Icelandic Meteorological Office. The glacier-covered an area of 16 square kilometres in 1890 and by 2012, it occupied only 0.7 square kilometres. As a dead mass of ice, having lost the capacity to move it lost its status of being a glacier. As a result, Iceland has renamed Okjökull as “Ok” (Jökull in Icelandic implies glacier).  A glacier must have a mass of  130-165 feet, to be considered active.
The mourners of Okjökull in Iceland including its Prime Minister unveiled a plaque with a word of caution to the current as well as the future generations. While we have monuments and memorials for the accomplishments of great historical icons or for wars, this monument is a unique symbol commemorating a non-human element. 

 

Is it only Iceland’s concern? 
Greenland's ice sheet is an essential factor in balancing the global temperatures. Ocean levels are rising and island countries are under severe threat. In the case of India, climatic changes are affecting the monsoonal patterns to a large extent, resulting in untimely droughts and destructive floods. 
Climate change is an indiscriminate phenomenon, and therefore it is not confined to Iceland or the Polar regions. However, there are differences in how every country views this phenomenon and how each one reacts to it. 

 

From US to Tuvalu: Who is serious and who is not about the Climate Change? And why?
Climate change is one of the major threats in the twenty-first century. However, the reaction of states to this threat depends on the severity to their own. Countries do come together on the same platform to define strategies to combat this security threat, but their course of action differs. 
Big powers like the United States and Russia do not perceive this problem through the same lens as Maldives or Tuvalu or Iceland. For the latter, climate change and an increase in the level of oceans is an existential threat. This is not the case with the big powers. Russia is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the thawing sea ice in the Arctic. Deprived a long coastline, opening up of the Arctic is a geographic and an economic benefit to Moscow. The leadership is keen on reviving the old-Soviet bases in the region, thereby attaching a security angle to the region. Having the longest coastline with the Arctic Ocean, Russia benefits immensely from the important resource-bases, particularly the hydrocarbons. While Russia involves itself in the Arctic climate negotiations, its commitment to the cause can be questioned. 
The United States, on the other hand, is going on a withdrawal spree from international organizations, international treaties and conventions; Paris Accords being one such case. In the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting held during March 2019 in Finland, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made no mention of the term “climate change”. This failed the Ministerial Meeting for all practical purposes, as there was neither a declaration nor a statement regarding the Arctic. 
Emerging economies like China and India are taking some steps to curb the consequences, but no stringent mechanisms have been put forth, owing to their requirement of further industrialization and economic development. On the other hand, Island states are concerned about “climate refugees”, a term that has failed to garner international attention and support. 
The debate on climate change is dependent on the power that a nation-state commands on the negotiating tables. Unless big powers take a firm initiative, international agreements on climate change will fail to operationalize.

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