My turn: Opportunity in a post-Arctic world

Posted: Sunday, December 13, 2009

With the Copenhagen climate summit now underway and President Obama planning to attend the final days of negotiations in the hope a presidential surge will help achieve a deal, the world's attention is keenly fixed on the normally quiet capital of Denmark.

As an Arctic state, with sovereignty over the giant, glaciated island of Greenland, it is fitting that this pivotal climate conference is taking place here, since it is in the Arctic that the impact of climate change has been most palpably felt, with recent years witnessing changes that were literally off the charts, whether the unprecedented spring sea ice melts three years running; the opening up of an ice-free Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route for the first time in human history; or the thawing of more permafrost and with it the worrisome bubbling of methane from far below.

There's been a lot fiery rhetoric about the potentially catastrophic impacts of a warming Earth, and already these impacts are being first felt in the North. But just as a "glass half-full" looks to those more pessimistically inclined to be half-empty, all this talk of climate doom and gloom overshadows the more optimistic possibility that a polar thaw will bring us many economic and strategic benefits. As the world's diplomats converge in Copenhagen, it is important not to let pessimism rule the day, or to presume that a warming Earth is necessarily a dying Earth.

Indeed, the professed certainty of the climate-pessimists collides full on with the inherent uncertainty of science itself. This has been noted recently by Mike Hulme, professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia in the 1990s, who observed in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Dec. 4, "When science is invoked to support such dogmatic assertions, the essential character of scientific knowledge is lost - knowledge that results from open, always questioning, enquiry that, at best, can offer varying levels of confidence for pronouncements about how the world is, or may become. The problem then with getting our relationship with science wrong is simple: We expect too much certainty, and hence clarity, about what should be done."

Hulme's comments are especially poignant in light of Climategate, which took place at his old university's Climatic Research Unit (CRU).

While the jury is still out on the damage ultimately caused to climate science, skeptics have rightly focused their attention on the many shocking e-mails that reveal climate science to be at the very least politically tainted, and at the very worst an orchestrated fraud where bullying and blacklisting of intellectual opponents, and a concerted, multi-year effort to censor academic journals and thereby prevent climate change skeptics from airing their views, are tools of the trade. As former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin put it in her Dec. 9 Washington Post op-ed, Climategate "exposes a highly politicized scientific circle - the same circle whose work underlies efforts at the Copenhagen climate change conference. The agenda-driven policies being pushed in Copenhagen won't change the weather, but they would change our economy for the worse."

Unfortunately, the politicization of the climate change battle has limited the debate that we ought to be having. While many climate change pessimists have concluded that the Earth is heading into a profound climate crisis, and that action is required at a planetary level to prevent the coming tragedy. A more optimistic bunch anticipate there will be far less severe consequences and perhaps even some positive ones as well. A real debate on the winners and losers of climate change is still worth having.

With Copenhagen under way, it is vitally important that we re-examine the presumption of a climate crisis. After all, we in the Far North might be the biggest winners of climate change, and it is our stake in the future that we must consider. Indeed, it is the promise of a post-Arctic world that inspires the people of Greenland, offering them not only a way out of endemic poverty but a path toward true independence. They see the glacial retreats and earlier spring ice melts as an opportunity for growth and development.

A post-Arctic world promises to put the North smack dab in the center of the world of commerce and geopolitics. The opportunities ahead are indeed compelling. We must therefore look beyond the question of whether the Earth is warming or not, or whether this warming is anthropogenic or not. The more fundamental question is whether climate change is necessarily a crisis, or perhaps an opportunity of historic proportions. This is a question worthy of debate, and which should be taken up in discussions at Copenhagen this week.

While such a debate has long seemed futile, given the degree to which the climate crisis camp has come to dominate the scientific and policy agendas in recent years, perhaps now, with the climate pessimists on the defensive and their long-hidden biases revealed, the opportunity for such a debate has arrived. Then, a northern perspective can be considered, so that our hopes and dreams - long absent from the discourse - are no longer ignored by those all too happy to keep our future on ice.

• Barry Zellen is the author of Arctic Doom/Arctic Boom: The Geopolitics of Climate Change in the Arctic; On Thin Ice: The Inuit, the State and the Challenge of Arctic Sovereignty; and Breaking the Ice: From Land Claims to Tribal Sovereignty in the Arctic. He directs the Arctic Security Project for the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

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