The Arctic disconnect

If long-term climate disruption is a reality, so is the prospect of short-term benefit for states such as Canada and Russia. But their governments' denial of climate change looks back not forward. 

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
30 January 2014

The merging of climate change into climate disruption is creating asymmetric effects  worldwide. This is seen with particular clarity in the near-Arctic, especially Greenland.  As the icecap melts and dense sea-ice gives way to potentially navigable waters, it will  become feasible - both onshore and offshore - to conduct exploitation of hydrocarbons and minerals.

The islanders are addressing this reality. Greenland's prime minister Aleqa Hammond accepts that retreating ice will make the territory a significant player in global affairs. “Climate change and this resultant new industrialisation brings new risks", she says. "We must understand that the effects will be both positive and negative” (see (John Vidal, “Climate change brings new risks to Greenland...", Guardian, 23 January 2014)

The same trends of new sea routes and the massive new hydrocarbon exploitation are also set to occur in the north of Canada and Russia (see Øyvind Paasche, "The new Arctic: trade, science, politics", 7 April 2011). This is reflected in both Russia and Canada's new focus on enhancing naval forces suited to the Arctic, not least icebreakers.

The United States Coast Guard (USCG) has belatedly realised its own need for more and larger icebreakers. Its sole large ship at present is the Polar Star, constructed in 1976 and therefore well past its thirty-year expected lifespan. At the same time it is probably the most powerful non-nuclear icebreaker in the world, and has recently undergone a $90-million overhaul (and was involved in a major Antarctic rescue operation) (see Marianne Lavelle, “U.S. Icebreaker Polar Star: Explaining the Ship in Antarctic Rescue”, National Geographic Daily, 6 January 2014). The Polar Star's sister ship, Polar Sea, is inactive because of engine failure in 2010. The USCG thus has to manage amid severe constraints, while financial pressures make replacing both ships unfeasible.

Yet the pace of climate change is putting such an expansion on the agenda. The USCG is acutely aware that the Russian fleet includes five much more powerful nuclear-powered icebreakers; one of these, the huge 25,000-tonne 50 Let Pobedy, was completed only in 2007.

The power of denial

This injection of new interest in the Arctic also produces a striking disconnect.

The climate is clearly changing worldwide (see "2014, a climate emergency", 10 January 2014). The near-Arctic illustrates this more vividly than any other area. Yet the two largest countries bordering the region, Russia and Canada, are set to be beneficiaries from climate change, in two ways. First, as already major producers of fossil fuels, they will gain access to new resources in their Arctic regions. Second, a warming climate will allow their agriculture and people to “move north”. The counterpart is that the governments of both countries, led respectively by Vladimir Putin and Stephen Harper, refuse to accept that climate change is human-induced; both too want to intensify the exploitation of their own hydrocarbon resources, even though climate scientists overwhelmingly believe that this will make matters worse (see Carol Linnitt, “Harper’s attack on science: No science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy”, Academic Matters,  May 2013).

The attitude of Ottawa and Moscow echoes that of the fossil-fuel industry, which equally refuses to accept the human-climate change link while happily seeing the Arctic opening up for business. The only small concession made by the industry and producer countries in recent years - taken with little fuss or public acknowledgment - is acceptance that the climate is changing, though the link is still a complete taboo.

The powerful combination of political obduracy and industrial influence is matched by a dip in renewable and energy conservation.  In 2013, global investment in alternative energy decreased by 12%; in Europe it fell by half and in China there was no growth in the sector for the first year in a decade (see Samuel Oakford, “Clean Energy Investment Sags Amid Mounting Climate Risks”, TerraViva/IPS, 16 January 2014).

The dangerous cycle

The reality, then, has five aspects:

* The Arctic is probably changing faster than anywhere

* Canada and Russia are among the very few countries to benefit from climate change, at least in the short term

* They are also big hydrocarbon producers

* Therefore, they can "win" on both counts

* They must deny the carbon emissions / climate change link.

To states and the fossil-fuel industry steeped in refusal, their own stance presents no problem. But it ensures two troubling consequences for everyone. First, many others will suffer right across the world, in a continual process with no end in sight. Second, the effects of carbon emissions accumulate (unless they are curbed rapidly). It not just that the global climate will warm by a couple of degrees and get more disruptive and then reach a new plateau - but that it will go on getting warmer and warmer and yet more disruptive. The longer the cycle goes on, over perhaps two or three decades, the more difficult it will become to turn things around.

For the current leaderships of Russia and Canada, denial is the only way to proceed. Since decarbonisation has to happen on a worldwide basis they are not the only ones culpable, but the influence they wield means they will draw particular blame. They may be unconcerned, and it seems unlikely that either government will soon come to its senses. But as climate disruption accelerates, in the Arctic and elsewhere, a global shift of perception and attitude could yet occur with a rapidity that will startle everyone. The denialists most of all.

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