Cryosphere 2015: The Paris Agreement Negotiations

The earth’s cryosphere – regions of snow and ice – is approaching thresholds that may tip the balance between successfully addressing climate change; or slipping into a cascade of catastrophic and near-irreversible changes for many ecosystems and human communities.   Cryosphere scientists share increasing alarm that global leaders and the public lack real knowledge of the scope and immediacy of this threat.

ICCI’s Cryosphere 2015 effort united these scientists with some of the most respected climate ambassadors across the globe to dialogue with key policy makers; contribute to negotiations; and freely provide accurate, compelling, accessible information to public interest organizations and campaigns.  Most importantly, just prior to Paris ICCI released the “Thresholds” Report (iccinet/thresholds), which outlined some of these key risks.  ICCI also brought several leading cryosphere scientists to Paris and the COP for seminars and presentations, including an exhibit booth and side event.

Background:  Parts of Antarctica and the Arctic already have warmed three times faster than the rest of the planet; and almost all polar and alpine regions have warmed by at least twice the global average.  If this rate of cryosphere temperature rise continues, projected from 4 to 10 C° (7 to 18°F) by 2100, destructive impacts will result all over the globe.  Cryosphere-caused effects include sea level rise; permafrost melt that releases substantial additional greenhouse gases; and loss of snow and ice that otherwise cool the planet by reflecting the sun’s rays. Most seriously, yet least appreciated by political leaders, we are already in the process of crossing certain thresholds that cryosphere scientists increasingly categorize as irreversible, especially on Antarctica and Greenland.  Should we allow these processes to begin in earnest, to reverse them appears to require temperatures and CO2 levels well below those of today, and would take several thousands of years.

Such cryosphere thresholds bring a new imperative to 2020-30 commitment levels for the Paris 2015 Agreement.  A cryosphere science-based response means far more aggressive measures than anything being considered in even the most ambitious international climate goals.  Addressing such a level of risk – a “cryosphere imperative” – may finally bring political leaders to take needed (and ultimately, inevitable) levels of action now.

Key cryosphere researchers from the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment participated in an ICCI-organized Day of the Cryosphere in November 2014 at COP-19 to release On Thin Ice, a survey of cryosphere climate change and near-term mitigation produced by ICCI with the support of the World Bank.  These leading IPCC scientists expressed alarm at the lack of understanding of the scope and immediacy of the threats they had outlined in the Assessment, blaming in part the obscure and qualified messages the process favored.  They expressed a desire to speak more directly and bluntly to the policy world.

Cryosphere 2015 was the result.  Its steering committee included a number of former climate ambassadors from around the world, as well as a “science pool” of eminent cryosphere scientists.

This group identified five key global and immediate threats from cryosphere climate change:  irreversible sea-level rise related to Antarctic and Greenland instability; loss of water resources due to land glacier melt; accelerated warming from Arctic permafrost and seabed hydrate collapse; fisheries loss from polar ocean acidification; and accelerated warming from loss of reflective Arctic sea ice.

Simultaneously, the project is developed informational material accessible both to busy policy makers, and the general public.  It was in contact with a number of leading non-profit organizations, who used these materials in their own international and domestic public campaigns leading up to COP-21 in Paris.  Cryosphere 2015/ICCI also held more public seminars in connection with major environmental meetings, such as COP-20 in Lima and the annual Bonn negotiations, and participated in the UNSYG’s Climate Summit in New York.

Using the decades of negotiating experience at its disposal, the project further worked to shape potential new provisions for the 2015 Agreement allowing ongoing strengthening of commitments as the scale of the cryosphere threat, and level of necessary response becomes even more clear due to anticipated research results in the next two years, especially as regards the future of Antarctica and methane deposits in the Arctic.


  • More scientifically-based, and therefore more ambitious, commitments in the Paris 2015 climate agreement by key countries and leaders, especially the U.S., European Commission, China, India, Canada and Australia.
  • Greater appreciation by the general public of key countries of the importance of preserving cryosphere to their daily lives; and therefore, greater willingness to support earlier and more ambitious actions to do so.
  • Specific provisions in the Paris 2015 agreement to allow strengthening of commitments further in response to anticipated new cryosphere research outlining the risks of inaction, within the next two-five years.