In 1984, a Danish Minister planted the Danish flag on a 1.3 km2 (0.50 square miles) rock in the icy waters between Greenland and Canada. By this gesture sovreignty was claimed over the small island called “Hans Island” (or in Danish “Hans Ø”, in Greenlandic “Tartupaluk”). July 2005 Canadian Defence Minister Bill Graham set foot on the island prompting Deputy premier of Greenland, Josef Motzfeldt, to state that the island had been occupied by Canada.
And that was just the tip of the iceberg. Since the 70ies Canadian and Danish soldiers, tourists and politicians have been removing and planting flags, building cairns, posting diplomatic notes as well as leaving behind alcoholic beverages on Hans Ø. Besides the friendly jest between Canada and Denmark there is a growing seriousness to the issue; one illustrating a trend: As the Arctic region is melting due to climate change and natural resource reserves are running out elsewhere the increasingly accessible resources there become more and more interesting.
The North Pole and the Arctic Ocean is place number 11 in 100 Places to Remember Before they Disappear a coffee table picture book issued in time for the 2009 COP15 climate change summit in Copenhagen. It is melting as one of the most directly observable consequences of global warming. The stunningly beautiful picture number 11 shows a great icebreaking ship, tiny in the backdrop of vast sea ice, accompanied by a text concluding that “disputes will arise over who is entitled to its resources, disputes that could potentially trigger confrontations”.
Companies are salivating
In the words of Marsha Walton, CNN: “shipping and energy companies are salivating at the prospect of smaller ice caps, which makes Arctic drilling and commerce easier.” Of course, these businesses are looking ahead to a market of fuel prices greatly increased. The Arctic is thought to contain 25% of the planet's undiscovered oil and gas, about 200 billion barrels of oil. And their eagerness leaves politicians of Arctic nations busy as precise sub-ice borders were never fully agreed upon.
Fortunately, these nations share good diplomatic ties and are nowhere near needy enough to risk conflict over these resource rights – which could easily have been the situation elsewhere in the world. September 2010 Canada, Russia, Norway, the United States and Denmark met in Moscow to agree on territorial claims. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said:
”Serious political and economic interests are indeed crossing over in the Arctic. But I have no doubt that problems, including the continental shelf problem, can be solved in the spirit of partnership. It is well known that it is difficult to survive in the Arctic on your own. Nature itself makes people, nations and states help each other there. Unfortunately we are faced with alarmist predictions of a looming battle for the Arctic. We are monitoring the situation and making responsible forecasts.”
And Putin has good reason to advocate peaceful cooperation since his country is already leading the race there, Russian scientists are making the case that the continental shelf extends from Russia far into the Arctic and business deals are already being negotiated. In fact, Russia plans to invest 312.8 billion US dollars on exploration and promise extra tax breaks for oil corporations wanting to do business in the Arctic. They have sent a submarine to plant the Russian flag on the sea bed but complain about NATO's presence. But spinning on the good news of peaceful cooperation also diverts attention from the environmental concerns.
Spin and silence
First of all, we have already found more than enough fossil fuel reserves to cause extreme climate change. We don't need the Arctic reserves to do that. A fact so blindingly obvious since they are only becoming accessible because of the melting ice caps. British green pundit George Monbiot's gave a speech at Klimaforum09 (alternative COP15) in which he said:
”If governments were serious about climate change [...] they would be putting proposals here at Copenhagen this week to determine which parts of carbon reserves would be left in the ground. [...] they would also be proposing a total global moratorium on all prospecting for new reserves of coal, oil and gas.”
Secondly, the Arctic may be melting but it's still a harsh environment, difficult to operate complex deep water drilling in. In the words of one Greenpeace protestor, tied to a test drill platform:
“It is a reckless prospecting endeavour, trying to find new oil reserves in this fragile and pristine environment.”
Even angry neighbours suing to halt local windmill projects will agree that “society” should do something about climate change. But facing the prospect of making a profit we are hard pressed to find people willing to let it go in the name of environmental sustainability. Brings a crocodile tear to the eye to see the Arctic nations exploit and pollute Earth in diplomatic peace, doesn't it?
[This article is based on the blog posts tagged 'Arctic' at my Ecowar blog. The research George Monbiot was referring to I summarized in a TH!NK2 article: Limiting warming to 2°C: How much more can we drill, baby?.]