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Freezing the thaw: managing the rush for Arctic Black Gold

The world’s wealthiest and most powerful nations will be able to better endure these disruptions, just as they now enjoy the energy consumption that causes it.

Joshua Goldfond
10 July 2015
Activists try to block Arctic oil drilling rig from leaving Seattle's port,June 2015.

Activists try to block Arctic oil drilling rig from leaving Seattle's port, June 2015. Demotix/Alex Garland. All rights reservedThe Arctic Sea, that Africa-sized expanse of ice that caps the globe with impassible glaciers and lethal temperatures, has for centuries kept its treasures hidden from humanity’s grasp. But a century and a half of collective global industrialization have unlocked what John Cabot, Sir Francis Drake and the American crew of the SS Manhattan could not.  

The burning of fossil fuels is melting the Arctic, and quickly at that. Called “the canary in the coal mine,” by the Natural Resources Defense Council environmental group, the dissolution of the Arctic ice is both an indicator and accelerant for the environmental upheaval that awaits the rest of the planet. The world’s wealthiest and most powerful nations will be able to better endure these disruptions, just as they now enjoy the energy consumption that causes it. If civilization is to survive the next 100 years in any recognizably modern form, the fundamentals of this risk/reward dynamic will have to be addressed.
In September 2011, the 75,000 ton “Nordic Orion” became the first commercial vessel to successfully travel from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic through the Arctic Sea, saving $80,000 in fuel costs over the standard route through the Panama Canal. The opening of this fabled “Northwest Passage” was the result of longer and warmer glacial melting periods, the disruption of 700,000-year-old seasonal patterns observable since the late 1970s. Maritime analysts are already theorizing that mass shipping through the region could be achieved within a decade.

And as the vanishing ice reflects less sunlight and allows Earth to heat up even further, the summers of 2040 may see no ice in the Arctic at all. But the windfall for global trade is having decidedly more negative consequences elsewhere. The effects of these rising global temperatures are already being felt around the world, with diminished crop yield, mass extinctions, and devastating weather events. Rising sea levels themselves endanger major coastal cities like New York, Shanghai, Miami, Bangkok, and Mumbai. The nation of Maldives, which sits 6 feet below sea level, threatens to vanish beneath the waves.            

And yet, one person’s ecological disaster is another’s opportunity. A 2008 report by the US Geological Survey estimated that as much as one-quarter of the world’s remaining untapped petroleum reserves lay in wait beneath the ice and rock of the Arctic Sea. The melting ice reduces the cost and risk of petroleum explorations and extraction, making the prospect even more appealing to the six nations that control the Arctic rim: the United States, Russia, Canada, Iceland, Norway, and Denmark (via Greenland). The United States, NATO and Russia have already increased their military training in the region,  as the great hunt for resources enters a more desperate and dangerous chapter.  

If this new chapter is not to be the last one, a new approach is required. First, there should be a quantifiable pinch on the actors who benefit from Arctic exploitation the most. The creation of an internationally administered flat tax on private or state-run companies engaged in petroleum extraction, plus a modest toll on ship passage within the Arctic Circle, would be a critical step in this direction. Second, an international foundation should be established to levy and managed these funds, whether it is an arm of the UN,  an NGO, or a committee of the six Arctic nations themselves. The fund’s purpose would be to administer aid,  preparation, and infrastructure repair for UN-designated “Developing Countries” and “Least Developed Countries” faced with natural disasters and social disruptions that are directly attributable to climate change.

To say that this would be a wildly unpopular idea is an understatement. Global powers are loathe to grant any form of control to others, and the energy sector has extraordinary influence over the governments that would theoretically implement such a plan.  Developmental aid provided to third-world nations has a long history of vanishing into the winds, making fund transparency critical at every step along the way. And there would certainly be dispute over the scope of climate change’s role in each appeal, as contending states parsed which events were acts of God versus the folly of man.  

These concerns are relevant to the debate, but ultimately immaterial to the larger issue at hand. Humanity is addicted to a substance that threatens to destroy it, and it is an insidious irony that using this substance has opened up new pathways to its acquisition.  An extraction tax and passage toll on the Arctic would also explicitly draw the connection between the fossil fuel windfalls enjoyed by the wealthy nations and the ecological costs paid by the bottom billion.  

If Maldives is to sink, then the least that monolithic state-owned oil companies like Gazprom and state-subsidized ones like Exxon-Mobile can do, is to help fund the relocation of its people.

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