2030 NORTH: In the Grip Of Climate Change


Presented by Robert Hubert


What a difference a few years will make. Until very recently any discussion of climate change and its impact on the Arctic focused on convincing the audience that climate change existed and that its present and future impact on the Arctic was substantial. Those who were interested in the international environmental health of the Arctic were preoccupied with issues such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), mercury and other such transboundary pollutants. It is clear that even as recently as the 1990s Canada’s attention both domestically and internationally was not on climate change. Both the Arctic Environmental Strategy (AES) (which was developed solely by Canadians for domestic strategy) and the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) (which involved Canadians and was developed for the circumpolar region) were not concerned with climate change. However, our understanding of this issue has now undergone a dramatic transformation. Climate change has moved from being a non-issue to being the most important issue in any discussion regarding the Arctic.

Northern society is undergoing a social transformation. It already has the youngest population in Canada. At the same time the youth in the north are now becoming connected to the rest of the world in ways unimaginable a generation ago. Through new communication technologies the young people are as connected to the electronic global commons as any other Canadian youths in the south. This began with the rapid spread of satellite television but has been vastly expanded by the rapid spread of the internet and other electronic means of communications. This means that the youth of the region are being exposed to the world in a manner that was inconceivable just a generation or two ago. This exposure is transforming the expectations and hopes of many of this generation. While some still wish to follow the traditional way of life, many are demonstrating a preference for adapting to the southern life style. The real challenge here is that both education and employment opportunities in the north lag behind southern Canada. Thus in some communities there is a growing disconnect between expectations and opportunities. This in turn has created problems that are taxing the social system. For many youth in the north, climate change is only one of many factors that are transforming their life.

The last major factor transforming the Arctic is the recognition of the vast quantities of natural resources in the north. The perception is that the impact of climate change will make it easier to gain access and therefore exploit the resources. The reality is more complicated. For example, Canada recently moved from being a non-producer of diamonds to being the third largest producer in the world. The ongoing warming trend brought on by climate change has hurt, not helped, the operations of these mines. The ice-roads that are essential for their resupply are facing a decreasing operating period. Recently the roads failed before the fuel oil resupply was completed for one of the mines. It was faced with the choice of either suspending operations or flying the oil in. The choice was made to fly in the oil, but it should be immediately apparent that this was a costly operation. It is not only gold mines that have faced problems. The melting permafrost is likely to add substantial costs to the building of new infrastructure on the land. The construction of a pipeline must now take into account the costs and challenges of securing the pipe to a shifting land base. There are technical solutions to such problems but they come with substantial price-tags.

But there are some resources that may benefit. There are growing reports that new fish stock such as turbot and shrimp are moving north. These may offer new fishing opportunities. Likewise, it is also expected that as the ice melts there will be increased opportunities for transpolar shipping. When the ice melts completely in the summer months as is soon expected many of the world’s shippers are expected to examine the potential of going over the pole as a means of shortening the distance between Asia and Europe. It is uncertain as to when such voyages will begin. While the shipping industry is currently watching the area with interest, there are no signs that such shipping is imminent.

There could be both opportunities and challenges for Canada in the case of new fishing and shipping. New fisheries may offer new sources of protein and employment opportunities for northern Canadians. On the other hand, a new and invading species will often disrupt the existing biosphere. Thus the entry of new species could adversely affect existing stock. The ramifications for the entire food chain could be significant.

The most extensively discussed impact of climate change on shipping is the expected use of the Arctic Ocean as a means of shipping goods between Europe, Asia and North America. On a purely geographical basis, there is no question that many of the existing routes could be shortened if the ice was to be removed. However, it is increasingly being recognized that before such shipping occurs, the ice must be gone for a substantially long period of time on a consistent basis. The word’s shipping industry relies on consistency and any delay caused by a sudden re-emergence of ice earlier than expected can have dire economic consequences. In conjunction with the lack of infrastructure support in the north, most observers suspect that transpolar shipping may not occur as quickly as previously thought. Nevertheless, shipping is still expected to increase. Instead of being transpolar in nature, it will be destination-based shipping. That is, it will be arriving north to engage or support specific economic activity such as mining or energy development.

The Japanese have been funding research in Canada and the United States oriented towards understanding a resource known as gas hydrates. It is their belief that this resource could provide them with an important energy source outside of their current dependency on the Middle East. Gas hydrates are a jelly-like gas that forms at great depths and/or cold water. It is basically a form of natural gas that seeps from the ocean bottom and then forms in semi-solid form. While it offers a very concentrated source of energy, it is also problematic environmentally. While there are currently no economically viable means of raising these resources from the seabed, two possible means are to either reduce the pressure in the area immediately surrounding the hydrates or to heat the region. In the context of either heating or depressurizing part of the Arctic Ocean, it is immediately clear that significant environmental impacts will flow if either technique is ultimately utilized. The other problem associated with hydrates is that they produce methane gas when used. Methane is one of the most potent of the greenhouse gases. Thus it seems logical that a large scale use of these resources would only act to add to climate change. What would be the Canadian position in the face of a Japanese decision to exploit these resources? No one would question Canada’s right to say yes or no, but would the government be willing to give up the taxation that could be placed on these resources? And if Canada was to allow this industry to develop how would it be overseen? What would be the regulatory requirements? Would there be any effort to offset the impact it would have on the possible increase in climate change? All of these questions will need to be answered if the Japanese devise a means of economically exploiting these resources.

The onslaught of the impact of climate change comes at a time when the politics of the circumpolar world are under significant transformation. However, it is the perception of climate change that is accelerating the developing international legal framework and the geopolitical processes that are now occurring. The belief within the international community that the Arctic will soon be open for business has sparked a rush of two main types of international activities. First the international community is now positioning itself as competing models of Arctic governance are forming. On the one hand the five coastal Arctic states are trying to balance a desire to protect their own sovereign interests within the Arctic balanced against the knowledge that they need to rely on each other as the Arctic opens up. On the other hand, non-Arctic states are beginning to state their interests along with their desire to be included in any emerging governance system.

The second trend that is now accelerating is the manner in which the Arctic states are beginning to modernize/expand their Arctic military capabilities. Canada, Norway, Russia and the United States have all begun to plan or actually build new capabilities. In every case the main official reason for these actions is the belief that climate change will soon make the Arctic more accessible. It is then assumed that the increase in international activity that will follow will require strengthened abilities and response in the Canadian Arctic.

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