The Arctic Pandora’s Box
Above Photo: From Artkillingapathy.com
Edward Snowden said that his greatest fear with regards to revealing the largest government spying program in history was that “nothing will change.” When I interviewed John Kiriakou, he agreed. When it comes to climate change, it often feels like I’m screaming “fire” at a bunch of people sitting around roasting marshmallows. For so many, the issue of climate change has become normalized, even oddly comfortable. In the film “This Changes Everything,” Naomi Klein laments the apathy she feels in seeing yet another polar bear caught on a melting piece of ice. It’s an image we’ve seen so often, it just becomes another image – a passable piece of our reality – unfortunate but too big, too abstract, too difficult to change. In the film, likewise the book, Klein makes the point that while climate change is indeed a crisis, capitalism is what’s driving that crisis. At every turn, capitalism pushes the pedal, spewing more poison for pennies. Profit is paramount – people and planet are disposable.
Folks in environmental movements have previously found a shallow comfort in the hope that as climate change pushes back against this road raging destruction, industries and governments would be forced to rethink their polluting ways, thereby shifting towards sustainable legislation and clean energy. After all, the price of oil is dropping. Natural gas is marked for export more often than not due to low prices and demand here in the US. Renewables make more economic sense – so how could the markets possibly reject a more sustainable future? Well, because they’re capitalist. And shifting from fossil fuels – or mitigating hugely destructive mining operations – just isn’t in the capitalist paradigm. It’s about extraction, perpetual and personal growth and as little market (and paradigm) shift as possible. So, while renewables do have a place in the global market, so do the rapidly thawing cash crops of the Arctic.
A recent Reuters report covers an ongoing standoff between the Sami people and mining companies looking to cash in on new opportunities made possible by “climate change and technology.” In northern Norway, some 72 million tons of copper lie nestled under the thawing ground. Arctic Minerals company Nussir already has permits. Now they’re just waiting for Norway’s green light. In Jokkmokk, Sweden, Beowulf Mining is waiting for a decision from the Swedish government regarding their iron ore mine. In Finland, the Sami have fared a little better – keeping iron ore, copper and gold surveying at bay for the time being. Indigenous to areas now part of northern Norway, Sweden and Finland, many Sami people still live in traditional ways that include reindeer herding and fishing. Needless to say, for people who literally live off the land and sea, a proposed mine dumping its tailings into the fjord would not only destroy land-based livelihoods but those that rely on the soon-to-be-toxic waters. Still, as disgusting as these opportunistic battles are, they’re neither a new problem nor a distinctly Sami problem.
In 2011, the ironically named Business for Social Responsibility organization released a report titled “Adapting to Climate Change: A Guide for the Mining Industry.” Less of a guide and more of a long-winded and boring congratulatory letter, the report notes that warming temperatures will not only open up new mineral-rich areas for exploration (read: exploitation), but will save companies cash on heating costs while also keeping northern sea channels free of ice so as to allow for longer and easier shipping windows. I struggled to find the social responsibility portion of BSR’s name reflected in the report, but considering their client list includes Pepsi, Chevron, Wal-Mart, Gap, and Newmont Mining Corp, their name might as well be Bullshit Responsibility. Similarly echoing this stomach turning excitement, a 2014 Arctic mining market trajectory suggested that “over the next 10 years, investment in the Arctic—led primarily by the oil and gas and mining industries—could exceed US$100 billion.” Analyst Li Qing Tan highlights the economic power behind “unleashing the mining potential of the Arctic” for those companies willing to deal with some regulatory and infrastructure challenges. Since the Arctic is largely undeveloped, roads and other access infrastructure will have to be built in order to connect the new mines to the global market. As we’ve seen elsewhere, you can’t just mine paradise, you gotta pave it too. Unfortunately for the Arctic, someone’s always willing to.
That someone includes the second largest economy in the world. Between 2005-2017, China invested an estimated $1.4 trillion in the economies of the Arctic – with a focus on natural gas. Discoveries from as recently as April of this year project a boom in natural gas production, with one area in Russia expected to produce 360 billion cubic meters of gas. And there’s plenty more where that came from. The USGS estimates that “nearly one-quarter of the earth’s undiscovered, recoverable petroleum resources lie in the region: 13 percent of the oil; 30 percent of the natural gas; and 20 percent of the liquefied natural gas. More than 80 percent of these are thought to be offshore.” Of course, not all of the goods lie nestled under Russia’s jurisdiction. In fact, one of the most wealthy places in terms of natural resources is an economically poor colony. Indeed, while countries like Russia, Finland, Norway and Sweden play their hands from sovereign decks, Greenland is hoping to buy some autonomy in the Arctic game. Officially still part of the Kingdom of Denmark, Greenland needs a stronger economy in order to fully break away from their colonial overlords who still issue annual grants to the island.
Back in 2009, Denmark ceded mineral and hydrocarbon rights to Greenland following a self-government referendum which passed in Greenland in 2008 with 75% approval. Fast forward to 2013 and the pro-mining Siumut party beat out the anti-mining Inuit Ataqatigiit party in bitterly contested elections. Soon after, Greenland’s parliament voted to lift a ban on radioactive materials – laying out a welcome mat for uranium and rare earth industries. With uranium necessary for nuclear plants and rare earth minerals used in everything from mobile phones and flatscreen TVs to modern weaponry, Greenland didn’t have to wait long till companies came a-knockin’. As of 2016, six mining projects had either already broken ground or were at the most advanced stages of consideration. Interested parties span the globe – from Canada to Australia, and of course, China. Since his election in 2014, Greenland’s prime minister Kim Kielsen has advanced business discussions with Chinese investors, and earlier this year even announced plans to possibly open a representation office in Beijing. Considering China’s interest in not only mining but in “infrastructure planning, tourism, and scientific cooperation,” Kielsen’s pro-business paradigm has found a natural partner in China. Still, there seems to be plenty to go around. Beyond just rare earth minerals and uranium, Greenland also has stores of iron ore, nickel, copper and gold. Greenland’s leaders have also expressed interest in opening up their coastline for more oil drilling, having already invited Cairn Energy to drill off their western shores in 2010-11. Jorn Skolv Nielsen, head of Greenland’s Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum even cited the retreat of sea ice as a major reason for opening up Greenland’s waters to drilling. In other news, now that my house has burnt down, I have more room to light fires. In short, in an attempt to gain independence from Denmark, Greenland is selling its future to foreign industries, thereby becoming dependent on the well-slicked toxic smack of perpetual capitalist extraction and destruction. Really not sure that it’s worth it – particularly when Greenland’s ice sheet is what’s keeping our oceans from swallowing billions of people and hundreds of cities.
Indeed, as nature’s panache for irony would have it, Greenland stands to not only gain loads of cash thanks to Arctic thaw but also, complete obliteration. If and when Greenland’s ice sheet melts, global sea levels will rise by 20 feet. Meanwhile, there are other issues associated with Arctic thaw, outside of cash crops, which make for an unbelievably bleak and terrifying future.
An oil spill on dry land is a nightmare. An oil spill in the ocean is a nightmare. An oil spill in the Arctic leaves them both behind. As noted in a 2012 report in The Economist, “controlled oil spills in ice in and off Norway suggest that the oil would coat the pitted underside of the sea ice and more ice would form under it, making an ice-and-oil sandwich. As the sea ice moves, this would be spread around the Arctic and gradually dispersed as the ice melts. Shell, one of the most technologically advanced oil firms, admits it has no satisfactory answer but suggests it could track the frozen oil and burn it as it melts.” Big oil’s only bright idea to save the Arctic in the event of an oil spill is to literally set it on fire. The Arctic. On fire. And while Shell pats itself on the back for frying up some ice oil sandwiches, the poisons lurking beneath the already fragile ice get that much closer to fresh-ish air.
In the Arctic, it’s not just about what’s to come, it’s also about what has already come to pass, coming back to bite us in the ass. For instance, frozen arsenic. Under Northern Canada, some 237,000 tons of arsenic lie frozen and forgotten by an underground mining project. The poisonous remnants from the aptly named Giant Mine have already contaminated surrounding waters and over 300,000 cubic meters of soil. As Mischa Andrews wrote in an Arctic Resources and Communities article, “The plan is for the remaining arsenic to remain frozen underground forever, yet ‘forever’ is a concept that transcends budgets and technology. It’s a time frame of myths…” And while this mythical time frame splinters along reality’s jagged edges, the Yellowknives Dene First Nations people are left with an abandoned mine, no industrial accountability and a rapidly warming homeland. Meanwhile, across the Arctic, 15 million gallons of mercury lie just beneath the permafrost. A U.S. Geological Survey study from February of this year notes that there’s roughly twice as much mercury in the Arctic’s permafrost than in all other soils, the ocean and the atmosphere combined. And as the permafrost thaws, this mother load of mercury will seep into the atmosphere, into all kinds of bodies of water via fluvial systems and of course ultimately, into the ocean. But wait, it gets worse. There’s twice as much carbon dioxide in permafrost as there is in the earth’s atmosphere. There’s methane and anthrax; ancient bacteria and viruses – oh, and nuclear waste. Be it our own stupidity or the earth’s layer cake methodology, the Arctic is a pandora’s box of shit that can kill us; a sealed door that we are both literally and figuratively taking a blow torch to in the interest of short term greed. The Arctic Council predicts that some 20% of the Arctic’s permafrost may thaw by 2040. Between what lies beneath coming up or being forced up, there’s really no way to sugar coat this issue.
The warming of the Arctic is not only evidence of our irreversible destruction but an opportunity for us to destroy more quicker. We need change now, yet the change we’re mostly seeing is but an adaptation to, if not an acceleration towards, our own suicide. While there’s no silver lining, there is power and potential in knowledge. Know what we’re up against and know that market forces are hammering nails into coffins rather than digging us out. Build alternatives, plan outside the confines of the capitalist paradigm but know that climate catastrophe is here – and if the mouth watering over melted ice is any indication of our trajectory – that catastrophe is just getting warmed up (pun intended).