A person driving up Massachusetts Avenue could almost miss the Embassy of Finland. Shielded by ivy, it’s set back from the road and blends in with the surrounding forest, which lost just three trees to the embassy’s construction a dozen years ago.
Compared to the flashing police lights on all roads leading to the vice president’s residence at the U.S Naval Observatory just across the street, Helsinki’s Washington outpost is practically invisible.
But the embassy is trying to show that a small nation can have a big impact on a monumental issue—global warming—leading by example and letting the world know that the polar regions of the world will feel climate change more drastically than will the temperate zones.
“People in Finland are very conscious about nature in general,” Pekka Lintu, Finland’s ambassador to the United States, told The Washington Diplomat. “Living in nature is part of the Finnish way of life, and people see with their own eyes what is happening in nature.”
He noted that the Scandinavian nations are greatly affected by the Gulf Stream, which warms the northeast Atlantic. If that were disrupted, there could be enormous consequences for the entire region.
Finland took advantage of its spot in the rotating European Union presidency in the second half of 2006 to advance the global warming issue, organizing the highest-level EU-U.S. meeting yet on climate change, clean energy and sustainable development in Helsinki. “After a few years of less dialogue, both sides came there and found it very useful, found common language, how we can talk about it, and we would continue the dialogue,” said Lintu, who noted that it’s up to the United States to organize the 2007 meeting.
The pulpit of the EU presidency has passed to Germany, but Finland continues to keep the climate issue on the agenda, organizing events and letting its opinions be known on Capitol Hill and U.S. federal agencies. Lintu said his embassy doesn’t try to tell the United States how to run its internal affairs, but does seek cooperation.
“We understand that the situations are quite different in the different countries, but we are ready to share our experience,” Lintu said, referring to Finland’s high energy consumption due to its climate and industries, and the steps it’s taken to reduce consumption and clean up its industries. “It is really important that we—the EU and the Americans—can find a common approach. Discussing post-Kyoto [Protocol], 2012 and beyond, we should approach it together, and we should find ways to bring all of us together, plus the important developing countries.”
Lintu points to his nation’s forestry industry as making the best of the need to improve. Back around the 1960s, it was an enormously polluting industry, but legislation forced cleaner methods, with the result that the mills created a “closed-circle” process that contains pollutants and even sells energy as a byproduct. This process is now a model for clean pulping around the world, and Lintu hopes the problem of climate change will spawn comparable advances.
Other Nordic nations have made their own moves on global warming. Iceland, which gets much of its power from geothermal sources, has explored carbon sequestration technology. In 2004, Norway, a major oil producer, brought Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), among others, to view the effects of warming on Svalbard, an island area north of Norway in the Arctic Ocean.
The Norwegian Embassy in Washington also co-hosted a major conference in D.C., along with the Carnegie Institution, titled “Arctic Meltdown – Global Effects,” this past October. The country is even creating designs for a doomsday vault called the Svalbard International Seed Vault to act like a modern-day Noah’s Ark and protect future generations against increasing global climate changes.
In February, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued severe statements on global warming, pushing the issue off the science pages and into the policy realm. Combined with Democratic control of the U.S. Congress, Nordic nations are finding their years of activism have created even more opportunities to convince the world to take action.
In fact, this month marks the official start of the International Polar Year, a massive international scientific effort focusing on the Arctic and Antarctic from March 2007 to March 2009, organized by the International Council for Science and the World Meteorological Organization (www.ipy.org).
Like their Nordic neighbors, the European Union has also announced some ambitious proposals to tackle climate change in its backyard. The bloc is striving to reduce its energy-related greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020—and if an appropriate post-Kyoto international commitment is reached, the EU aims for a 30 percent reduction in emissions by 2020, as well as a whopping 60 percent to 80 percent decrease by 2050.
European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas came to Washington in February to meet with key Americans on the issue. “First of all, we are trying to explain this package, especially the 30 percent reductions [and] the economic aspects, because a lot of the discussion here is, ‘Well, we can’t afford it,’” said Robert Donkers, environment counselor to the European Commission Delegation in Washington. “If we couldn’t afford it, we wouldn’t do it either.”
The U.S. Senate has strongly rejected ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, which sets up an emissions cap-and-trade system through 2012 among its signatories, including all major industrial nations except the United States and Australia.
Democratic control of Congress means that Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has famously championed the notion of global warming as a political and media hoax, is no longer chairman of the key Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. But the overall political shift is not as great.
“There were already a lot of people on both sides of the aisle who understood that there was something to be done. Of course there are notorious Republicans who still think that climate change is not real, like Inhofe, but a lot of them have other opinions and these are not unimportant people,” said Donkers, citing Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), McCain, Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.).
“Now nobody like Inhofe can block these discussions in the Environment Committee.”
Some of the EU’s ideas are already taking hold in California, with a Brussels official serving on a state advisory board that is working on an emissions trading system for the state. California’s proposed automobile emissions standards and fuel specifications are also similar to the EU’s, noted Donkers.
Other outreach comes at events such as a Feb. 13 dinner and discussion at the Finnish Embassy, co-hosted by Dartmouth College, which brought some of the world’s leading polar experts together with diplomats and U.S. officials. The talk by William Fitzhugh, who has spent decades studying northern peoples and archaeology and serves as director of the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, stressed the effects that indigenous people will experience and are already experiencing due to climate change. Fitzhugh’s presentation included photos of an archaeological dig of a 10,000-year-old Arctic settlement built, apparently, entirely out of driftwood, as well as modern people experiencing change in everything from food to housing to travel.
Polar experts are also getting ready for the Arctic Summit Science Week from March 14 to 20, put on by the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory and the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth. The conference aims to bring together Arctic groups and experts from around the world to showcase the importance of science in developing sound policy to address changes to the region and its people, said Ross Virginia, director of Arctic studies at the Dickey Center and professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth.
“The Arctic system is really very delicately poised around operating between a frozen system and a liquid system,” said Virginia. “It’s extremely sensitive to small temperature changes.”
The consequences of polar melting may bring a set of enormous challenges to the Nordic region, regardless of what causes global warming or what actions are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Shippers are already eyeing northern routes now blocked by ice. Warming may make a new world of resources previously considered too difficult to exploit available to scientists. There may even be new border issues among countries.
“It’s almost like dealing with a global health crisis. No one country can do it,” said Ken Yalowitz, director of the Dickey Center and former U.S. ambassador to Belarus (1994-97) and Georgia (1998-2001). “The bottom line is, what do you do to promote international cooperation and a considered, wise approach, rather than letting this fall to competition—commercial, national, whatever it may be—and causing some very untoward results because of lack of cooperation?”
About the Author
Sanjay Talwani is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.