Earlier this week, scientists reported that monitoring stations across the Arctic were registering readings of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels higher than 400 ppm. Far above the “safe” 350 ppm, we are headed towards the eventual reality of surpassing even the two degrees target agreed to by politicians in the global climate negotiations. Meanwhile, just today Interior Secretary Ken Salazar reaffirmed that the United States is giving the go-ahead to Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling up to five wells in the off-shore Arctic. This is part the US strategy to not only become “energy secure,” but also stay ahead in what seems to be an inevitable scramble to divide up the resource rich Arctic. Already, Norway and Russia have embarked on the process to tap what seems to be a mammoth find of fossil fuels (oil and gas) hidden below the icy depths of the Arctic.
Many will recall Russia’s symbolic flag placement on the ocean floor at the North Pole in an attempt to lay claim to the territory (according to the United Nations Law of the Sea Russia’s may have the right to it based on its continental shelf). Even while the 8 nation members and 6 groups representing indigenous groups on the Arcitc Council are working to create a common framework for cooperation in the Arctic, other nations like Brazil, Japan, Korea and China are asking for stakeholdership in the region. One noted diplomat from India suggests that the Arctic should be preserved for scientific research and peace along the lines of the Antarctic. But who would forego such riches? President Grimsson of Iceland hailed the Arctic model of cooperation as a “new form of diplomacy” at a conference in March 2012. As the ice crystals settle, what will emerge is a new permanent secretariat of the Arctic Council with representation from not only the Arctic littoral states but also the indigenous groups who have been living in the region for centuries. This secretariat will supposedly be democratic, have an “emphasis on science-based outcomes,” have “equality of partners in the decision making process,” set new diplomatic norms, and most importantly, all its tasks will be oriented toward the future (because it is assumed the Arctic will melt).
There have been a flurry of events organized globally on the opportunities presented by the melting of the Arctic. At least 12 symposia have been organized in the last decade around the opportunities for the oil and gas sector in the region. Companies are sharing the advancements they are making in their abilities to tap resources in a region previously off limits due to ice. Thanks to climate change, the situation in the Arctic has changed with sea ice retreating faster than what scientists anticipated. Little is understood of how the melting Arctic ice may impact global fisheries, carbon uptake by the oceans and ultimately tip the planet’s delicate ecological balance. Some estimates say the entire Arctic will be ice free during the summer in 30 years time. Meanwhile the climate negotiations have themselves arrived at a juncture where the work accomplished in the last 18 years means little. Even less may be expected from the upcoming Rio+20 conference. Perhaps they could take a lesson or two from this “new form of diplomacy” around the Arcitc. No one is saying it, but we are all thinking it: this is irony on ice. Happy World Environment Day.