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As the Arctic goes, so goes the planet

WWF's Carter Roberts on getting it right in the Arctic and beyond

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Done sustainably, development can yield big wins - for financial capital and the natural capital we all depend on. Done wrong, it can be a financial quagmire and destroy the natural systems that are the very foundation of all that we cherish.

Shell learned that lesson the hard way in September. After spending billions in a fragile part of the planet, the oil giant announced they were pulling out of the Arctic. There's much to be learned from their example - for the Arctic and the rest of the world.

I spoke on this topic at the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik Iceland last month. The turnout, which included several thousand people, several heads of state and other senior governmental officials alongside leaders from industry and local communities, served as a reminder of the Arctic's importance to so many, but also underscored a critical reality: a sustainable Arctic will require collective efforts from all of us.

The Arctic is a wondrous place - rich with vibrant cultures, magnificent wildlife, valuable fisheries and extraordinary landscapes. And as the ice melts and climate changes opens parts of the region for the first time in modern history, the region is changing before our eyes. With that comes the impulse to explore ways to find value in the Arctic - both for its people and for the rest of us.

Openings matter. And places are opening up all over the world. In each case, countries are taking the proactive step of putting all their values (cultural, environmental, economic and financial) on the table and WWF, along with others, are helping map those values in a way that can be used to guide decisions. In doing so, countries are creating a path to development that doesn't destroy nature in the process. Combined with the knowledge of local communities, natural capital provides a powerful tool for getting ahead of the development curve.

You can see it in the Brazilian Amazon, where the world's largest tropical forest is under pressure to produce more food, and where a growing arsenal of data is guiding smart choices around creating a vast system of protected areas and indigenous reserves.

You can see it in Mozambique, where the government just announced it will work with WWF and the World Bank in honoring their commitment to a green economy, where natural capital information informs development.

And you can see it in Myanmar, where we are working with the government, and others, to map that country's natural capital at the request of the president and his cabinet. Myanmar's data shows where intact vegetation helps secure fresh drinking water, where the country's untouched forests are most valuable in stabilizing climate, and where the region's population of tigers holds the greatest promise for future ecotourism. We're working with developers to redesign sectors of a major road being built between Bangkok and Dawei, the Asia equivalent of the Panama Canal, to keep parts of the forest and tiger habitat intact.

The pressures driving desires to develop the Arctic are not unfamiliar to us. We see them in these other magnificent places. Expedited transportation routes. New fossil fuel reserves. Robust new fisheries. But we need to ensure that the push to exploit these resources does not overrun efforts to conserve them. We need to keep in mind a few guiding principles.

  • First, take into account the whole system. That means mapping, knowledge and science integrated with traditional knowledge of the local people. Let the entire system guide your decisions.
  • Second, synthesize financial knowledge with scientific knowledge, innovation and proper governance. The Arctic governmental bodies need to put in place commitments to follow what other countries have successfully done around the world.
  •  Finally, we need to supplement information on financial capital opportunities with information on the natural capital that's at stake.

We need all of this in the Arctic. Unlike Antarctica which is managed as a single entity, the Arctic crosses jurisdictions of 8 countries and shares rights with others across the world. But the complex jurisdiction of the Arctic region should not be an excuse for inaction. There are many scientists and institutions gathering the best possible scientific information and devoted to getting this right. The data is there.

At the same time, as we near the coming global climate conference in Paris, we are reminded that if we do not address the problem of climate change in the rest of the world, we will see forces unleashed in the Arctic that may seal our doom. The region already suffers more than most from the impacts of climate change. But as those climate impacts worsen, the Arctic shifts from being a victim of climate change to becoming a driver of global devastation: with melting ice projected to bury coastlines around the world and disrupt important ocean currents that stabilize temperatures in Europe; and with melting permafrost releasing massive amounts of methane (a greenhouse gas much more powerful that carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere.

The stage will be set this month when all eyes turn to the UN climate talks in Paris. If the gathered nations agree to close the enormous gap between current emission reduction pledges and what science tells us is needed, we have a real chance to reduce the risks the Arctic faces from climate change's worst effects. And in so doing, reduce the threats the rest of us could face from a rapidly melting Arctic.

We need to get it right. In the Arctic, in Paris and beyond. Because it is abundantly clear that while the future of the Arctic depends on the rest of the world, the future of the world also depends on the Arctic.

Carter Roberts is President and CEO of WWF-US

This post originally appeared on huffingtonpost.com