A Marina on Baffin Island.

Global warming is causing the polar ice-caps to melt. There is forty percent less summer ice now than in the 1970s. By 2030 the Arctic could be free of ice during summer. And I ask, “What is the good in this?” Well, it creates all sorts of opportunities. Some of these come from resources exploitation. Some of them come from adapting to climate change.

In the case of the North Poles, this is freeing up access—after a fashion and in relative terms—to the seas north of Canada, Russia, and the Scandinavian countries.[1] In 1982 the United Nations adopted a “Convention on the Law of the Sea.” This grants signatories ownership of undersea resources up to 200 miles off their shores. One area of interest is oil and natural gas drilling.[2] Because the ice cap and terrible weather prevented people from exploring for gas and oil beyond Alaska’s North Slope, geologists are not sure how much oil and gas might be found as the ice cap retreats. One estimate is that 20 percent of the world’s as-yet-undiscovered gas and oil lay under the Arctic ice. This might include a third of the world’s natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil.[3] Oil companies have rushed in to explore where angels fear to tread: Exxon, BP, Statoil (Norway), and Eni (Italy) have all begun exploration of the fields north of Russia. Since the “Deepwater Horizon” disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, they have been giving a lot of thought to how to deal with the inevitable spills that will happen in such a harsh environment. So far, they don’t have any good answers.[4]

Similarly, the retreat of the polar ice caps is liable to open a mining boom in Arctic areas. Ice, snow, permafrost, and brutal winters have kept people from exploiting some of the Earth’s resources. Russia stands to profit from a warmer, greener Siberia. Separatists in Greenland are already speculating on seeking independence from Denmark.

Some of the adaptive responses have a comical note to them. Artificial snow-machine makers face rising demand from imperiled ski resorts. Others responses have potentially bigger pay-offs. Environmental disasters in the 1950s spawned ideas that have great relevance today. In 1952 the British forester and conservationist Richard Baker proposed creating a tree-belt along the southern edge of the Sahara to hold back desertification. In 1953 a gigantic storm in the North Sea led to massive flooding in Holland and eastern Britain. Holland responded with a thirty year campaign of dike and storm surge barrier construction; Britain built the Thames Barrier downstream from London.[5]

In 2002, the African Union adopted Baker’s idea of a tree barrier against the Sahara. Then it was taken up by the African Union. To make this plan work, somebody is going to pay to plant a belt of trees thirty miles deep and four thousand miles long. Foresters, nurseries, and irrigation engineers will be in demand. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy demonstrated New York City’s vulnerability to storm surges and rising sea levels. Builders experienced with massive sea-gate flood control projects are likely to be in demand in a host of places.

If people don’t adapt to climate change one way, they will adapt another way.

[1] It hasn’t become the Gulf of Mexico yet. In summer there is still a lot of drift ice floating around for the high winds to blow into off-shore rigs; in winter the temperature still drops to 50 degrees below zero and the whole place ices up.

[2] The US Senate has not ratified this convention. Which isn’t the same as saying that the US will not defend what it conceives to be its national interests.

[3] So, you burn the gas and oil; that heats up the planet even more; it gets progressively easier to access the gas and oil. Neat. Sort of.

[4] “The battle for the Arctic,” The Week,” 6 December 2013, p. 11.

[5] McKenzie Funk, Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming (New York: Penguin, 2014).

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