A spinning sense of urgency was hard to escape at this year’s Camden Conference, “The Geopolitics of the Arctic, a Region in Peril,” where participants, logging in remotely from around the world, spent two days taking in a 10,000-foot view of the top of the globe, reflecting on how the fate of the temperate middle is inextricably tied to it. Underlying every conversation was the promise that if we don’t stop the rapid melting of Arctic ice, not much else is going to matter.

Space doesn’t regard the Earth from one direction or another, but the tilt of the planet in relation to the sun has given cartographers an incentive to put the frozen poles at the top and bottom and the equator between them. Looking down on the North Pole, the natural organization is radial — coldest at the center, and warming toward the edges of the circle. If you were to spin the disc, any point would make as much sense at the top as the next.

A frozen ocean sits in the center, ringed by lopsided fringe of land. If the Arctic were a clock face, the northern coast of Russia would span more than five hours, Canada about three and the U.S. an hour and a half.

The international boundaries are mostly undisputed and, historically, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, former president of Iceland and the conference’s keynote speaker, said, international relations in the region have been characterized by a spirit of cooperation.

The significance of glacial and sea ice in the Arctic region can’t be overstated. Grímsson put it this way: If a quarter of Greenland’s ice melts, sea level will rise by two meters. Current models suggest that most of the glaciers on Iceland will be gone by 2100, when Grimsson’s grandchildren will be his current age.

Stopping the melt won’t be easy, he said. It will require changing the energy systems in every country on the planet. Failure will multiply itself, and the existential prize will be totally at odds with history as a wealth of short-term opportunities is revealed beneath the melting ice.

Before the Earth turns into waterworld, the receding ice will open shipping routes through the Arctic, bypassing the Panama and Suez canals. Today these northeast and northwest passages are navigable during short windows in the summer, though they are mostly uncharted, meteorologically hostile and without ports.

The short-term gains in shipping, mining and oil and gas exploration will almost certainly be buried by the negative effects of climate change (an estimate given at the conference valued losses at $70 trillion), and probably at a faster rate because of our efforts to cash in on what's left. Soot from cargo ships settling on ice absorbs heat from the sun, speeding melting. Thawing permafrost has created farming opportunities in Russia, but it's also releasing vast amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2. And while there’s already more than enough oil in down-globe reserves to do in civilization as we know it, further exploration doesn’t bode well for a transition away from fossil fuels.

There is some good news. The major world powers, including the U.S., Russia and China, agreed last year to a 16-year moratorium on commercial fishing in the Arctic.

Gail Whiteman, a professor of sustainability at the University of Exeter Business School in England and an expert on global socio-economic risks emerging from climate change described the Arctic ice as an “insurance policy against catastrophic runaway climate change.”

For most of human history, the polar ice stayed that way because it reflects sunlight. But pollution has its own synergy, and greenhouse gases have trapped an increasing share of the reflected heat in the atmosphere, raising temperatures here in the bubble, and doing to the ice what direct rays couldn’t. When the ice melts, as it’s been doing for decades, the dark earth or water it once covered absorbs the sun’s rays and warms the land further. Which melts more ice, and so on.

In addition to raising ocean levels, warming has been linked to increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events — including hurricanes and the associated storm surges here on the East Coast.

While the industrialized world has been bargaining with the approaching catastrophe, this process has only accelerated. “Since the 1970s, we have known that the Arctic Ocean is really in crisis,” Whiteman said. “There’s been a 50% reduction in the thickness of sea ice since the ’70s, a 50% area loss, 75% volume loss, and multiyear ice has really declined rapidly — there’s been a 95% loss since 1985.”

Climate scientists often cite a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels as the threshold for significant harm to human civilization. We’re currently at 1 degree, Whiteman said. To stay below 1.5, new global CO2 emissions will need to be halved by 2030 and totally eliminated, or offset through equivalent carbon sequestration, by 2050.

A slate of Maine laws signed by Gov. Janet Mills in 2019 aims for a 45% reduction by 2030 and 80% by 2050, which is either more realistic or not good enough. We’ll see. President Joe Biden rejoined the Paris climate agreement, with its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. He also pulled the plug on the Keystone XL pipeline and is reviewing environmental policies that were rolled back under the Trump administration, but the results remain to be seen, and anything the current administration does could be undone by the next one.

“All I can say is that physics doesn’t lie,” Whiteman said. “If we had 200 years, we could sort of nicely move, you know, easily towards a low-carbon society, but the window’s closing, and it’s closing rapidly.”

Understanding that our best hope may lie in convincing powerful interests that the short-term gains aren’t worth it. Whiteman has for the last four years set up an Arctic science basecamp on the grounds of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at Davos, in an attempt to bring the Arctic to the power brokers.

In addition to being a global insurance policy and a bonus part of the Earth to be exploited sometime in the future, the Arctic is home to many, comparatively powerless, Indigenous people, who live through a gentle give and take with nature.

In Alaska alone, there are roughly 230 tribal peoples recognized in one way or another, said Michael Bravo, author of “North Pole: Nature and Culture,” an expansive history of scientific exploration in the Arctic: “So this is a special region with extraordinary cultural diversity that is at the heart. That is at the heart of the character of the Arctic region. … One of the things that the Arctic brings the world is a delicate sense of moral authority.”

Gunn-Britt Retter joined the conference remotely from the Sápmi region of Scandanavia, latitude 70 degrees north, to shed light on what climate change looks like to Indigenous people in the Arctic. Retter is head of the Arctic and Environmental Unit of the Saami Council, which represents Indigenous Saami organizations in Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden.

“Climate change in the Arctic happens twice or two to three times faster than in other regions,” she said. “Globally, discussion is about limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees. It seems, however, we are steering towards 2 degrees or even more. In the Arctic, our homelands, that would mean 4 to 6 degrees or more increase in average temperature. And it’s not the summers that get warmer. It is the winters, and they get wetter.”

Retter said flexibility is a key to survival in harsh climatic conditions, and one that the Saami people have internalized. Ironically, the largest immediate threat to the Saami culture, and to the practice in the region of reindeer husbandry in particular, might not be climate change itself but the failing attempts of dominant industrialized society to adapt, or play act at adaptation. She called this the “secondary effects of climate change.”

Massive wind turbines are located far from urban centers but this can mean in the Saami land and reindeer grazing areas. The turbines cast long moving shadows from the low sun. Batteries for electric cars require copper and other minerals, which can be mined in the Arctic — major rare earth and uranium mines are the subject of ongoing debates in Greenland. The mines are not located in urban areas but out of sight in the comparatively remote Sápmi region. Meanwhile, authorities encourage people to drive environmentally friendly cars, rather than encouraging them to drive less.

“The green shift is nothing more than a continued extraction of resources in Saami areas, as has been the tradition since the earliest encounters between the cultures. The difference is that the resource utilization has been given a nice color, green.”

The Saami, who contribute least to climate change, are the first to be affected by it. Then they are hit again with the majority society’s measures to mitigate climate change. Retter said the same holds true for Indigenous peoples around the world.

The answer, she said, is circular economy, as the Saami have practiced, following the seasons, if that’s still possible.

“The eight seasons have taught us the trick that flexibility is key to be resilient to changing environments,” she said. “Now the seasons are changing faster than the people’s collective memory remembers, and are thus causing challenges to our culture.”