Climate change and the corporate scramble for the Arctic

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Satellite image montage showing Ellesmere Island and its neighbours. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

This is the second of a two-part feature examining the impact of climate change on the Arctic. Part I examined the uses of the colonial imagination of the Arctic. 

Many of the winter months of 2012 were among the warmest on record. The warming of our winters is an unsettling trend. 

For example, in the Arctic Report Card, researchers concluded that in 2008, "Autumn temperatures in the Arctic are at record levels, the Arctic Ocean is getting warmer and less salty as sea ice melts and reindeer herds appear to be declining." In 2010, the same group of scientists concluded that a return to previous Arctic conditions was unlikely.

And as our planet continues to warm up, we should be growing more terrified - for our planet and yes, selfishly, ourselves.

As the world gets warmer, our ice and frozen earth begin to melt. While this may benefit countries and corporations interested in profiting off of Arctic resource extraction, the harm to Mother Earth and the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic cannot be undone.

In December 2011, scientists with the International Arctic Research Centre at the University of Alaska Fairbanks announced that they have discovered unprecedented plumes of methane gas bubbling to the surface of the Arctic Ocean. Methane is a greenhouse which has 20 times more potent than its cousin carbon dioxide. As reported in the Independent

"Scientists estimate that there are hundreds of millions of tons of methane gas locked away beneath the Arctic permafrost, which extends from the mainland into the seabed of the relatively shallow sea of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. One of the greatest fears is that with the disappearance of the Arctic sea ice in summer, and rapidly rising temperatures across the entire Arctic region, which are already melting the Siberian permafrost, the trapped methane could be suddenly released into the atmosphere leading to rapid and severe climate change."

Natalia Shakhova, at the International Arctic Research Centre, commented on the study, "The concentration of atmospheric methane increased unto three times in the past two centuries from 0.7 parts per million to 1.7ppm, and in the Arctic to 1.9ppm. That's a huge increase, between two and three times, and this has never happened in the history of the planet," she said.

Arctic as the canary in the coal mine

The earth is warming regardless of the right-wing propaganda and reassurances from right-wing politicians and think tanks. On the other hand, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has rightly declared, "The Arctic is global warming's canary in the coal mine."

According to its data, average temperatures in the Arctic region of the world are rising twice as fast as they are elsewhere in the world, which has led to the shrinking of the polar (North) ice cap at a rate of nine per cent, according to NASA satellite imagery. At this rate, summers in the Arctic could become ice-free by the end of this century.

Scientists are equally concerned about the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf which is located on the north coast of Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada. According to the NRCD, "When the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf splintered, the rare freshwater lake it enclosed, along with its unique ecosystem, drained into the ocean. And along Arctic coastlines, entire villages will be uprooted because they're in danger of being swamped."

Between 1906 and 1982, scientists have recorded a 90 per cent reduction in the areal density of ice shelves along the entire coastline of Ellesmere Island, according to data published by W.F. Vincent at Quebec's Laval University.

The impact will not only be felt by Canada and Greenland, or the global south. According to the NRCD, "rising seas would severely impact the United States as well. Scientists project as much as a 3-foot sea-level rise by 2100. According to a 2001 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study, this increase would inundate some 22,400 square miles of land along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, primarily in Louisiana, Texas, Florida and North Carolina."

Just another business opportunity

Despite these warnings, the warming of the planet is seen by some as good for the global business. With the increasing rise in global temperatures, new Arctic passages through the numerous islands are opening up for the first time, and the warming earth could potentially make resource extraction of minerals, oil and natural gas more accessible.

In a March 27, 2012 article published in the Arctic Institute - Centre for Circumpolar Studies, Andreas Østhagen writes, "As long as there are commercial opportunities in the Arctic, local communities, governments, and companies will take advantage of them. Subsequently the question of relevance is not if oil and gas activity will take place, but rather how it will take place."

To countries such as the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, and resource-based corporations, the economic worth of the Arctic increases as the temperature rises.

The reaction from nations with a stake in the circumpolar region of the world differs from North America to Europe.

In an April 3, 2012, speech by Finnish President, Sauli Niinistö, at the 'Arctic Dimension' forum, he mentions a desire to resolve tensions between Indigenous Arctic peoples and the need for economic exploration of the environmentally sensitive area: 

"The Arctic region has become a strategic area of interest in global politics thanks to new shipping routes and an abundance of natural resources. In the future, the Arctic region may become Europe's principal energy source besides providing access from Asia to Europe and North America. As economic activities in the Arctic region increase, Finland and the other Arctic countries must ensure that everything done in the region respects the traditional ways of life, culture and livelihoods of the indigenous peoples. In Finland, this concerns our only indigenous people, the Sámi."

On the other hand, Harper's numerous tours of the Canadian Arctic is a marker that our Arctic is open to both exploration and exploitation; the issue of defence and sovereignty less about protecting the Inuit and other Indigenous nations from foreign invasion and more about Harper and the government of Canada wanting to protect their interests. 

A 2010 Arctic Summit hosted by Canada faced criticism for failure to invite major Arctic and Indigenous stakeholders. "It is inconceivable that the Government of Canada would contemplate holding a conference to discuss economic development and environmental protection in the Arctic without the active participation of Inuit, who will have to live with the consequences of any new government policies. This reeks of paternalism," said Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami's (ITK) acting president, Pita Aatami.

Essentially, Northern countries -- including Canada and Russia, but also the United States -- are taking advantage of climate change, so it is no surprise that these nations do not wish to curtail the negative effects of global warming or sign onto any real international accords that could potential curtail its effects.

In the article 'Arctic politics are getting warmer: a new scramble for territory?' writer Keith Suter notes that the new focus on the Arctic "could trigger a new scramble for territory, similar to that of the nineteenth century's scramble for Africa. The Arctic used to be of interest mainly to science. Now increasingly it is a matter of political, economic and legal interest."

For example in Canada, there is a real danger in letting international oil tankers navigate through the Arctic Ocean and allowing offshore drilling for oil and natural gas, with all the risk of oil spills that brings.

In response, Canada's National Energy Board (NEB) announced in 2011, as a consequence of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it was creating a set of drilling guidelines after consulting with scientists, labour and industry groups, other regulators, and residents and native groups in Canada's three northern territories of the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. 

In fact, Lloyd's of London, the world's biggest insurance market, in April became the first major business organization to raise its voice about huge potential environmental damage from oil drilling in the Arctic. 

A September 9, 2011 report by Pew Environment Group's Oceans North Canada recommended that Canada should temporarily stop giving oil companies licences to drill in the Arctic because it is unprepared to handle any oil spill that may result. 

But with the Arctic potentially containing as much as one-quarter of the world's untapped oil and natural gas deposits -- reserves that will become more accessible as temperatures rise and polar ice caps melt due to global warming -- the government of Canada may still attempt to press ahead with Arctic offshore drilling.

Regardless of the money to be made, the climate change in the circumpolar region has had and will continue to have devastating effects on the Indigenous peoples and their traditional territories. This is as true as climate change's potential for destruction to Caribbean, African and Pacific island nations. In all cases, the negative impacts will be felt the hardest by populations that are Indigenous, non-white or from developing nations.

Historically, the colonization of the Arctic has occurred in the following phases: first, the opening up of the Arctic as a passage way for trade and travel; then the control of the Arctic and its sea routes and air space during both World Wars and the Cold War; and now the attempt to own the Arctic as countries claim sovereignty over land and sea areas for their own political power and for the extraction of minerals, oil, natural gas and other resources.

Suter explains the global history: "The Russians, for example, reached Siberia in the sixteenth century. They now control the largest single amount of Arctic territory (ahead of Canada). They were particularly interested in the fur of the local animals. The Russians were rarely welcomed by the Indigenous peoples. The British had similar problems with subduing Indigenous peoples in Northern Canada...There was no consultation with the Indigenous peoples."

Arctic Indigenous peoples are warning that their traditional way of life and land is at risk from colonizers who seek to take advantage of new opportunities to exploit the land, displacing the Indigenous people and their traditional way of life.

For Canada, this fact is no secret, though it is another issue altogether as to whether anyone in the Canadian government is listening. An ongoing Canadian government funded study done through the Global Warming and Arctic Marine Mammals (GWAMM) project by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) reports on the impact on Indigenous communities, "...detailed observations by notherners have shed light on a trend that was unanticipated by scientists. As sea ice declines, the Hudson Bay marine ecosystem appears to be shifting from a polar bear-seal system with Inuit hunters at the apex to one dominated by cetaceans with killer whales at the apex. This shift is eroding Inuit traditional subsistence culture," says project leader Dr. Steven Ferguson.

The traditional knowledge, culture and people of the Arctic can be understood as an experience of 'the Other' in Ottawa's political discourse. This is evident in the Harper government's ongoing treatment of the Northern Cree community of Attawapiskat. The ongoing crisis in Attawapiskat would never have occurred if white-skinned Canadians lived there.

Returning to Kenn Nakata Steffensen (whose writing on the Arctic was looked at in Part I) , it's worth concluding with his quote of Greenland's President Kuupik Kleist, who spoke at the 2011 Arctic Council summit, making special reference to the Broadcast Text/Eskimo Avenue corporation:

"Although the focus on the natural sciences absolutely makes sense for our political way of thinking and strategic planning, it is also important to consider what we who depend on the conditions in the Arctic consider the most important aspect. The Arctic is not only about polar bears and ice. What is most often absent from discussions is the human situation in the Arctic and our living conditions. What Broadcast Text/Eskimo Avenue are doing lies in continuation of a long tradition of dehumanising non-Western peoples and using racism to justify political and economic domination. In this Western optic, the Arctic is a vast space to be exploited, and its inhabitants 'wholly crude and barbarous peoples such as the Eskimos,'" he concludes.

Thus comes the risk of seeing the Arctic as nothing but an uninhabited, tabula rasa territory simply waiting to be explored, colonized and exploited for the political and economic gains of outsiders.

krystalline kraus is an intrepid explorer, activist and rabble.ca reporter from Toronto. You can read more of her reporting, including recent coverage of May Day and Occupy related actions, on her rabble.ca blog. 

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