Obama, tame the Arctic gold rush

Story highlights

  • Roberts: Climate change has touched off a new gold rush -- to exploit the riches of the Arctic
  • He says President Obama's trip to Alaska is an opportunity to safeguard the Arctic environment

Carter Roberts is president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund in the United States. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)In August 1896, a small group of prospectors made a remarkable discovery in the Canadian Arctic. Sparkling on the bottom of Bonanza Creek, just outside the then-tiny hamlet of Dawson City, lay a future of untapped riches -- gold. And it was theirs for the taking. All they had to do was lock in their claim before others beat them to it. And with that challenge, the Klondike gold rush was born.

Carter Roberts
Tens of thousands descended on the area and grabbed all they could. When the resources tapped out, they moved on in search of their next big fortune, leaving behind a place that looked far different from when they'd first arrived.
Less than five years later, it was over.
    And now, a modern-day Arctic gold rush has started -- not driven by gold fever, but climate change. As summer sea ice melts and parts of the Arctic suddenly appear accessible for the first time in tens of thousands of years, pressure to access these untapped areas grows exponentially. If unchecked and ill-managed, it could lead to the demise of the Arctic ecosystem and local communities as we know them.
    This week, President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and foreign ministers from a handful of nations will meet in Alaska. It's the first time a sitting U.S. president has traveled to America's Arctic. And also for the first time, our American president will witness the impacts of climate change and the challenge of how best to manage the region's future in the face of this impending stampede for natural resources.
    The President has already taken strong steps to protect Alaska's unique natural heritage, including Bristol Bay.
    And now, Obama has the opportunity to define his vision of how all Arctic nations, including the U.S., should manage their shared future.
    Alaska will be the perfect spot for this discussion. It's waging a frontline battle against climate change. Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the nation, with the average annual temperature increasing by 3 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Climate Assessment. This alone is startling, but even more alarming are the changes this warming drives.
    Summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is shrinking, receding faster than previously thought, and is now expected to virtually disappear before mid-century. As the ice dwindles, dramatic changes will take hold. The annual migration of wildlife through the region will face threats, as will the long-term health of walrus and polar bear populations that rely on ice for survival.
    If shipping and offshore drilling expand into these newly accessible waters, it would bring new levels of risk to our oceans, our climate, local fisheries, wildlife and communities. The recent decision to allow Royal Dutch Shell to rush in ahead of the winter season to begin drilling without adequately demonstrating that it can do so safely doesn't represent the kind of wise approach we need.
    These impacts underline why the President's visit to the Arctic is so important. As leaders get ready for a pivotal climate change meeting in Paris in November, they are preparing for a moment in which negotiators from 196 parties will hammer out a global plan to slash planet-warming emissions. Our leaders need to see for themselves the urgent need for action.
    In the unraveling Arctic, Obama and others will have a front row seat to the consequences of climate change.
    Obama can use his visit to Alaska to reinforce what our nation needs to do to reduce emissions to levels that scientists say will fend off the most severe impacts of climate change. That means moving away from the fossil fuels that are driving climate change and further accelerating our nation's transition to a future powered by clean, renewable energy.
    The President has an opportunity to define a vision for how all nations can work together to manage our shared Arctic. That includes coordinating international efforts to manage shared shipping routes so that expected increased marine traffic does not interfere with key wildlife migration corridors and nursery areas. We need agreements to permanently protect the most biologically diverse and ecologically significant parts of the Arctic ecosystem.
    In this place, one of the greatest sources of seafood in the United States, we need to ensure that emerging fisheries are responsibly managed so local communities can sustainably access the ocean's bounty for generations to come. And we must ensure all Arctic communities are prepared for the climate-driven changes already underway.
    Unlike the "Eureka!" finds in the Klondike gold rush, there are no surprises here. We already have a strong sense of what the future will bring to the Arctic. Change is upon us and we can anticipate the pressures that change brings. Now more than ever, we need our leaders to get in front of that change and ensure the Arctic's future is one that benefits both people and nature.