As a former physicist and environment minister, it is only natural that German Chancellor Angela Merkel would want to learn about the consequences of global warming first hand.
Merkel and Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel began a two-day visit to Greenland Thursday to see the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO world heritage site, and the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier. The glacier, which is located about 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of the Arctic Circle, has thinned in recent years in what scientists say is one of the most obvious signs of global warming. Experts are concerned that Greenland's melting ice sheet could cause global sea levels to rise, with catastrophic effects on low-lying areas.
Merkel said that China and the United States must be part of a new deal replacing the Kyoto Protocol limiting greenhouse gases. "Our joint ambitious goal is to have a new, worldwide climate agreement decided which should go into force in 2012 when the present (text) expires," Merkel said, according to Greenland Radio KNR's Web site. "And the United States and China must also be part of it." The US and China are the world's largest emitters of C02, the gas that causes global warming.
"It made an impression on me to see the icebergs and hear that the glacier has (retracted) 15 kilometers in six years," Merkel told a news conference late Thursday. She said that the next few years will be decisive in combating climate change. "We have to make visible what is happening to nature," she said.
Greenland's ice is melting faster than anywhere else. The temperature on the island has risen by an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to a global average increase during the same period of 0.74 degrees Celsius.
'Merkel Could Go and Stand in the Asian Floods as Well'
But her trip to Greenland has been criticized by opposition politicians, who are dismissing it as a publicity stunt.
"Environmental policies which limit themselves to symbolism are a mistake," said Guido Westerwelle, leader of the business-friendly, conservative Free Democratic Party (FDP), in an interview with German public broadcaster ZDF on Friday.
Green Party floor leader Renate Künast was similarly cool in her reaction to Merkel's Greenland trip. "A melting glacier that produces cool pictures -- naturally that is a kind of public relations stunt," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE Thursday. "Merkel could also go and stand in the Asian floods as well." She added that she would prefer to have "more substance" instead of images from the government.
Merkel and Gabriel were joined on their trip to the semiautonomous Danish territory by Danish Prime Minster Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Before heading back to Berlin on Friday, Merkel and Gabriel are going on a helicopter tour to see more glaciers in the area and an American research base.
Merkel has been prominent in the push for action in agreeing on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol agreement, which expires in 2012. She secured a compromise agreement on considering greenhouse gas emission cuts at the G-8 summit in Germany in May, and will be holding a keynote speech at a United Nations climate conference in September. Merkel is also planning a trip to China and Japan at the end of this month, in a bid to get them on board for her climate plans.
With reporting by Florian Gathmann