Global changes in policy, law, and commerce a result of Arctic warming

What makes the work on Arctic warming by Penn State Professor John Kelmelis so arresting is the magnitude of the outcomes he can envision. “These changes will affect every aspect of our world -- climatology, biology, economics, international relations, law, business, and social interactions,” he said, and he has the data to back it up. Kelmelis, who teaches in the School of International Affairs and whose courses are cross-referenced for law students, shared some of his ideas in a recent article "Arctic Warming Ripples through Eurasia" in Eurasian Geography and Economics. While he also covers this scholarship in his courses, these topics have preoccupied Kelmelis for decades.

Kelmelis directed the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Global Change Research Program and the U.S. Antarctic Mapping Program before joining Penn State. He was chief scientist for geography at the U.S. Geological Survey. He also has worked for the State Department, the White House, and other organizations and continues to provide federal agencies with his considerable expertise. “We began studying global change at both poles because that’s where changes were occurring fastest,” he said. Though he doesn’t rule out some reversal of the current trends and thinks we must reduce carbon emissions for the benefit of future generations, he believes “the probability is extremely high that we are locked into climate change. Even if we stopped producing carbon emissions today, it could take 50 years or more for the environment to notice.”

Many variables to consider

This means that students in international affairs and law need to consider how, not whether, these changes will affect policy, law, and commerce. “There are so many variables,” Kelmelis explained. He gave one example. “Suppose you had 100 days with an ice free sea route in the Arctic per year, the whole shipping industry could change within a decade. New vessels would be built to navigate the Arctic waters, but that might have a significant impact on the economies dependent on Panama or Suez Canal transportation routes not to mention the environmental effects of increased transportation through the Arctic.” As a result, he explained, new policies would be developed, new treaties negotiated, and new business alliances would be formed.

A more complicated example is the drive to extract oil, gas, and other nonrenewable resources from the Arctic which will require the Arctic nations, as well as other nations, to cooperate. He noted that agreements need to be forged to protect the changing ecosystems especially in the face of potential oil spills. “Both the industrial and developing nations have a special responsibility to protect the environment and the economies of the region,” he said.

Kelmelis has no shortage of ideas for scholarship. “Talking with students has had a tremendous impact on the way I have looked at these issues,” he said. “Our students are so smart and interdisciplinary. They are full of new ideas and ways of looking at things.” In turn, students benefit from Kelmelis’ approach to any of his classes. He pointed to more than 20 boxes on the top shelf in his office bearing labels such as “sustainable development.” Each box contains the teaching material Kelmelis uses for interdisciplinary lectures. “And it keeps expanding because change is constant,” he added. He advises that the way we engage in law and policy development needs to change as well.

New career paths envisioned

“Environmental law or laws based on ecological systems must be dynamic rather than static. We should not rely on case law but base laws on new, verifiable scientific data. These changes will affect the way we do business as well. Business wants to know the playing field and that’s impossible. So we need new ways to think.” He sees these as tremendous opportunities for those just building their careers.

“These changes affect the stability of world so it’s important to also understand where science plays a role in the decision making process,” he said and added that where possible students should strive to gain additional expertise in the sciences.

In looking across the global interconnectivity that results from something as dramatic as Arctic ice melt, Kelmelis sees the need for a fundamental change in our values. “We need more cooperation among nations in order to run this complex world,” he said adding that it’s impossible for one element to change without rippling through many other geographic and societal elements.

“Throughout the industrial nations, the developing nations, and the rest of the world, we need cooperation on all levels.” But rather than see that as an impossible task, Kelmelis is able to point to many examples of how nations are able to work together within the rule of law to share, rather than compete for resources and to strive to protect the environment. “Humanity has been able to change things on a planetary level,” he concluded. “The goal should be to develop agreements which can be adapted to changes in the environment and our evolving values so they can withstand the test of time.”

Last Updated June 22, 2011