For all the action that they have taken, or indeed the fake science they have indulged in, you could be forgiven for thinking that the world’s great powers don’t really believe that climate change is happening.
But as they tussle and prepare for the great 21st century struggles over oil, fresh water and other key resources, there’s one area of the world that proves that they know fine well what’s happening with global temperatures: the Arctic.
For a long time the Arctic has been a backwater in geopolitical terms, with minimal presence of the great military apparatuses and the political interests that they represent. Historically the Arctic was mainly of interest as an arena for feats of heroic exploration that allowed nations to prove their macho national prowess. That’s now changing.
The reason is simple: the Arctic ice is melting, and the kind of environment that is there is irrevocably changing, thanks to human made climate change.
As indigenous people have pointed out, climate change is being felt first and most strongly in the Arctic region. On average Arctic temperatures have risen twice as fast as in the rest of the world. Consistent study of the ice covering the Arctic Ocean has been taking place since the 50s, and continuous satellite surveys have been available since the early 70s. These show that the ice has consistently been declining, getting thinner in the winter and virtually non existent in the summer. The rate of decline is now estimated to be around 28, 000 square miles a year.
This is driven by the rise in global temperatures, but also the knock on effect of warmer air and more storms being able to reach further North, breaking up the sea ice and driving it away from the coastlines of Arctic nations.
This is of huge concern for the whole planet, as the Arctic plays a key role in regulating global weather patterns, and the massive disruption going on there has huge implications for all of us. On a more local level, it greatly threatens iconic wildlife that nobody wants to see die off, such as polar bears, beluga and bowhead whales.
The warming of the Arctic also potentially will accelerate global warming, in what is known as positive feedback: warming causes things to happen that will in turn cause more warming. Specifically, the Earth’s albedo, or reflectivity will be reduced as the ice melts. The huge expanses of white ice reflect a lot of the sun’s heat back into space. But as it disappears too be replaced by darker ocean, a lot more of that heat will be absorbed into the Arctic sea.
On top of this huge quantities of the greenhouse gas methane are currently trapped by the Arctic permafrost in Siberia. But as this melts, and the peat bogs beneath emerge to form fetid swamps, huge quantities of gas may be released, again accelerating warming.
The polar bear particularly is in an incredibly perilous state. It depends on being able to hunt on the sea ice to build up fat reserves for the summer when it has to survive on land. Anyone who saw the episode of the BBC series Planet Earth on the Arctic can’t forget the tragic site of polar bears struggling to maintain their footing on slippery melting chunks of ice, and forced to swim for miles desperately hungry, driven to attacking dangerous prey such as walrus that they would never normally attack.
The US has just designated the polar bear an endangered animal for the first time, recognising it’s precarious condition in a world that’s changing to a far different one than the one they evolved in.
However, the US government was reluctant to take this step for the same reason that the Arctic population is rising, and global political interest with it: it is suspected that up to a quarter of the world’s remaining undiscovered oil reserves are in the Arctic. Currently much of this is inaccessible due to the ice pack. But the world’s powers know that ice pack is melting, and they know that this oil, as well as natural gas, is going to become available for extraction. At the same time, the rocketing price of oil as we possibly approach the peak of production means that the more difficult and expensive extraction of Arctic oil is going to become more profitable.
The madness of what is going on is actually mind boggling-the world is going to be hugely disrupted and endangered by the burning of fossil fuels. However, one of the major effects of this is taken as an opportunity to . . . extract more fossil fuels!
The Arctic currently has a population of about 4 million people, but only around 10% of these are now indigenous peoples, as huge numbers of settlers are coming in to prepare for this oil and gas bonanza. Already huge quantities are being extracted from Alaska and Siberia, and in the US oil drilling in the Arctic National Wilderness Refuge has for years been a touchstone environmental issue, hence the reluctance and opposition to classifying the polar bear as endangered. Oil companies fear it may pose legal problems for their business.
The US government is being sued by native peoples in Alaska, after they sold $2.6 billion worth of prime polar bear and whale habitat to oil companies. “We are honoured to join in the struggle to protect the traditional way of life of indigenous arctic peoples,” said Lily H Tuzroyluke, Executive Director, Native Village of Point Hope – Tribal Government of the village of Point Hope, Alaska. “Our Council has continued a long-standing and honourable duty to defend our lands for subsistence and ensuring whaling traditions are passed on to future generations. For centuries, our people have perpetuated a sacred relationship with our oceans and marine mammals for our nutritional, cultural, and emotional well-being.”
And in Canada environmental campaigners are desperately calling for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to call of a sale of rights to oil and gas exploration in five large portions of the Beaufort Sea, planned for June 2nd. The area is a key feeding ground for Beluga whales.
However, the different powers in the Arctic, including not only Russia, Canada and the US, but also Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland, are more worried about each other as adversaries than environmentalists.
Who controls the oil and gas to be got from the Arctic seabed is being fought over by the competing countries geological claims. All nations are considered under international law to have rights over the seabed up to 200 miles from their shorelines. But the same laws also give provisions for if a country can prove that its continental shelf extends beyond that limit then it can extend its rights.
This has led to Arctic nations scrambling to examine the geological features of the Arctic sea bed to prove their rights to extract fossil fuels from it. The Russians’ Arctic claim hinges on an underwater formation called the Lomonosov Ridge, which runs 1,240 miles from Siberia through the North Pole nearly to the juncture of Ellesmere Island (Canada’s northernmost point) and Greenland, and which Russia says is an extension of its shelf.
If this was accepted internationally it would put Russia in a position of great international strength, dominating the world energy market. As I already posted about, Russia is the prime mover behind a group of nations aiming to get natural gas producers organised into an OPEC style grouping, and it has the world’s largest natural gas reserves, making it the key supplier to Western Europe. If they were also to get recognised rights over the Arctic oil reserves, their economic influence in a world of dwindling fossil fuels would be huge.
The Russian government has been aiming to rebuild its geopolitical position and independence from the US since the embarrassment of the Yeltsin years, with some success. They are well aware of the crucial importance of the Arctic, and have a big team of geologists aiming to make good their claim. They grabbed headlines in 2007 when they lowered a submersible to the seafloor under the North Pole and placed a Russian flag on a corrosion resistant titanium pole.
Russia protested that the move wasn’t an attempt to make a political statement, with a then President Vladimir Putin claiming: “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right. I was surprised by a somewhat nervous reaction from our Canadian colleagues. Americans, at one time, planted a flag on the moon. So what? Why didn’t you worry so much? The moon did not pass in the United States’ ownership.”
But the Canadian foreign minister at the time was clearly rattled. “This isn’t the 15th Century,” protested Peter MacKay.
However, Russia does have a pretty fair claim: half the Arctic’s 4 million people live in Russia, 20% of Russia’s landmass lies above the Arctic Circle and it has 6 major rivers that feed into the Arctic Ocean. The US hasn’t even ratified the relevant international treaties that would give it a voice in deciding on Russia’s claims, due to the opposition of hardline Conservative Republicans in Congress who oppose ceding any US sovereignty to international institutions. Now the Bush administration is desperately pushing to change the US position.
Of course ultimately control of access to the Arctic’s newly available resources won’t be decided by geological claims, but probably the old fashioned way. Canada’s response to the Russian flag planting was to announce 2 major new military bases in its Arctic areas. A new army training centre for cold-weather fighting at Resolute Bay, and a deep-water port at Nanisivik, on the northern tip of Baffin Island. The country is also beefing up its military presence in the far North with 900 Rangers.
“Canada’s Government understands that the first principle of Arctic sovereignty is use it or lose it,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said. He also announced 6 to 8 new naval patrol vessels were to be built for operation in the Arctic Ocean.
Russia for its part has resumed regular combat patrols by its air force over the Arctic region for the first time since the Cold War, and caused a stir last year when several of its bombers managed to fly across US and Canadian airspace undetected. The Russian navy is also aiming to develop missiles capable of being fired through the thinning the ice pack from underneath by its submarines.
Besides the oil, there is another major reason why a naval buildup in the far north has huge strategic implications: the opening up of the Northwest Passage. This was the mythical sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans round the top of North America. It was sought by explorers for centuries, such as Martin Frobisher, Henry Hudson (who Hudson Bay is named after), Captain Cook and Captain Bligh of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ fame. It was eventually navigated successfully for the first time by polar explorer Roald Amundsen in 1905, but it has never become a viable route for regular shipping due to the ice pack.
But with the ice pack melting many are talking about the possibility of the Northwest Passage becoming a navigable sea lane open to commercial shipping. While it might not be as economically important as the oil reserves, it wouldn’t be far behind. It would cut in half the shipping time between the sweatshops of East Asia and the markets of wealthy consumers in Western Europe.
The Canadian authorities reported last year that the passage was ice free for most of the summer for the first time. If the pattern of warming and melting is kept up, the route has the potential to revolutionise global shipping and trade patterns.
Canada claims the passage as its own internal seaway. They want to see passage open to trade, but under their control and possibly subject to Canadian taxes. This lies behind the decision to majorly beef up the Canadian navy in the Arctic Ocean.
Of course as usual the people getting left behind in the race for the Arctic are the indigenous peoples, the Inuit, the Sami, Yakutsk and others who are now a minority in their own lands. Although the Inuit of Canada have gained a substantial autonomous territory, known as Nunavut, and Yakutsk people in Russia also have some measure of self government, the fact is that they don’t have the power to stand up to the great power maneuvering going on in the Arctic.
One Inuit man spoke to a newspaper about the competing claims over the Arctic, arguing angrily: “The Arctic sea is ours. It’s where we go for our food, our seals and whales. It’s always been ours, it’s ridiculous for anyone to think otherwise.”
Indigenous people in the Arctic are struggling to cope with the devastating impact of climate change, as the ground literally melts below their feet creating bubbling lakes of meltwater and methane. In Russia and Scandinavia their traditional economy, dependent on reindeer herding, is being severely undermined by ecological changes, for example wolves moving further north. They are also swamped by the huge influx of outsiders coming to work in the oil and gas industries. Like elsewhere in the world, ecological destruction is intimately linked with linguistic and cultural extinction, and many of their languages are unlikely to survive the coming decades.
The whole world needs to look at what is happening in the Arctic, and realise how it threatens our global climate. Action is needed to curb global carbon emissions and try and prevent the worst effects of climate change. But already those effects are being dramatically seen in the Arctic. Any wealth that might result from new economic activities in the far north belongs first and foremost to the peoples of the region, whose traditional lives are being despoiled by actions of peoples living thousands of miles to the south.
If the peoples of the north are to see their traditional ecosystem devastated, it at least behooves us to make sure that they see some benefit from the natural resources in their territories, rather than giving more massive profits to the already booming international energy corporations.