December 17, 2009
From Climategate to Copenhagen: Time for a Far Northern Perspective
By Barry Zellen
With the fractious Copenhagen climate summit nearing its end, and President Obama planning to attend the final day of negotiations in the hope a presidential "surge" will help to close the gap that still divides the industrialized North from the developing South, the world's attention remains keenly fixed on the normally quiet capital of Denmark. Street protests and mass arrests, staged walkouts by delegates from the Group of 77 to protest backroom deals sought by the West, and a widening perception that the summit has descended into chaos, have marred what many climate activists had long hoped would be a political love-in they believed would literally save the world. But such a happy ending seems unlikely with the summit's end fast approaching. The gap between the southern and the northern hemispheres, between the wealthy, Western world and the poorer developing world, looks to be insurmountable.
Up here, in the Far North, we live in both these worlds: the modern, industrialized, developed world; and the still-developing world. We know the limitless hope that fuels the former, and the sobering despair that can infuse the latter; this is perhaps why the Far North is considered by so many to be its own unique "Fourth World." With the climate summit in crisis, and the festering North-South rift threatening to derail all hope for a climate deal, the time is especially opportune for our own Far Northern perspective.
As an Arctic state, with sovereignty over the giant, glaciated island of Greenland, it is fitting that this pivotal, if paralyzed, climate conference has been taking place here, since it is in the Arctic that the impact of climate change has been most palpably felt - with recent years witnessing rapid and profound 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 yet more permafrost, and with it the worrisome bubbling forth of methane from far below.
There's been a lot fiery rhetoric about the potentially catastrophic impacts of a warming Earth. 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, formerly a professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia, who observed in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Dec. 4th, "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." Hulme's comments are especially poignant in light of Climategate, the gathering scandal whose ground-zero is his old university's Climatic Research Unit (CRU).
While the jury is still out on the damage ultimately caused to climate science by the sensational release to the public domain of CRU documents, correspondence and source code, skeptics have rightly focused their attention on the many shocking emails 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, have become tools of the trade. As former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin put it in her Dec. 9th 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 system is heading into a profound climate crisis, and that action is required at a planetary level to prevent the coming tragedy, a more optimistic few 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 thus still worth having.
Part of the problem is that the climate change activists have developed a compelling narrative the equates stopping global warming with expanding the sphere of human freedom, and by linking not only mankind's survival but the very purpose of a united, post-Cold War western world to the climate issue, it has found a cause celebre to unite diplomats, heads of state, climate scientists, and activists. Not since the collapse of communism and the expansion of NATO into former Soviet territory has there been an issue that has unified the West so coherently, certainly when compared to the divisive nature of the War on Terror, and in particular, its expansion from the original war against Al Qaeda to the broader war of democratic transformation of Muslim lands as envisioned by the Bush Doctrine. That expansion of mission, with its rising body count and continuing drain on the national treasuries of the West, has eroded the unity with which the western world first responded to the tragedy of 9/11.
A less bloody battle front, with less determined resistance to the full might of the united West, greatly appeals to leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, and so with much fanfare, western leaders lined up in front of the Brandenburg Gate in a now free Berlin on Nov. 9th this year to make their case that the world that became united twenty years ago when the Berlin Wall came down must now stand united as it tears down one more wall: that of today's threat to human freedom and survival, climate change.
Indeed, this is precisely what German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the U.S. Congress on Nov. 3rd, just a few days before world leaders converged on Berlin to topple Styrofoam facsimiles of the old Berlin Wall, lined up, ironically, as dominos, since communism fell with a rapidity and interconnectedness that exhumed and rehabilitated the long-discredited "Domino Theory" that had so wounded American power in Indochina a generation earlier. That Styrofoam itself, a medium-density polystyrene foam known to harm the ozone layer as well as human health, is about as ecologically unfriendly as you can get was not acknowledged as those feather-light dominos cascaded their way along the old Wall's 155km perimeter, after the first symbolic push by Polish democracy activist, Solidarity founder, and first elected president, Lech Walesa.
Chancellor Merkel told the U.S. Congress that she was "convinced, just as we found the strength in the 20th century to bring about the fall of a wall made of concrete and barbed wire, we shall now show that necessary strength to overcome the walls of the 21st century," and that she hoped "in Copenhagen we shall be able to overcome this wall separating the present and future in the interest of our children and grandchildren, and in the interest of sustainable development all over the world." Merkel's wall is thus metaphorical, one separating hope from despair, much as she viewed the old Berlin Wall that held back the East, preventing it from rejoining the more prosperous West during the post-World War II period.
But with the rapid warming of the earth, portrayed by so many climate-pessimists as, in the words of President Barack Obama, "a potential ecologic disaster," we will in fact witness the final collapse of a very different wall, one not just metaphorical but also very physical, and which has divided the Earth between East and West for uncounted millennia, dating back before the very dawn of man.
That wall is the polar ice cap, that continent-sized barrier at the top of our world, a barrier to trade and commerce, to progress, and to the final unification of East and West that started when the artificial wall erected by political man came down during the joyous celebration of freedom in Berlin. So while Chancellor Merkel is correct in linking the fall of the Berlin Wall to that wall which stands between present and future that is posed by the climate issue, she is wrong to conclude that it is the warming of the earth that we must fear.
Indeed, her effort and that of her like-minded colleagues in Copenhagen to slow, stop, and even reverse the warming trend, will only serve to keep this final wall dividing East from West in place. We should thus allow nature to bring down this final wall, one that clings stubbornly to the icy top of our world even though the last Ice Age has come to an end elsewhere on our planet. When the glaciers retreated and warmth returned to the world, it catalyzed a wave of human exploration and development and achievement through the mobility and commerce and productivity thereby unleashed. Rather than work to slow the warming, we should let it instead run its course. Echoing President Reagan's historic call to Soviet Premier Gorbachev a generation ago, Chancellor Merkel, we must tear down this wall!
The notion of a looming ecological disaster if we don't act now and with determination to stop down global warming, while dogma in the Obama White House as it is across the now united West, has much less to do with climate science than it does with politics, where instead of terrorists it is now the tipping point of climate doom that is this young administration's new bogeyman. Forget the Taliban, or even Al Qaeda, or the specter of mass terror attack on our homeland. Instead we have this new, dark specter of a melting polar ice pack, and presumed mass flooding of our coastal cities that would surely, to keep us awake at night.
Never mind that the polar ice pack is buoyant, floating ice upon water, whose melting would not result in a single inch of increased sea level of the world ocean. It is true that were the Greenland or Antarctic ice caps to thaw, sea levels would rise, but these remain uncertain outcomes. Evidence of an Antarctic thaw is at best anecdotal and localized to that continent's edge, and so a massive melt unlikely in the near-term. Even as icebergs calve off its outer rim, its interior highlands continue to remain in deep freeze, with some evidence that the ice pack there is in fact thickening. A potential thaw of the massive Greenland ice cap also remains uncertain, with recent glacial retreats suspected to be a cyclical phenomenon and not evidence of an imminent collapse as had been widely portrayed in the media. And so the flooding that keeps many awake at night may never come, at least not in our lifetimes or those of our children, and in the end it may be only fear itself that keeps a restful sleep at bay.
The haunting images of a looming end to the Arctic are truly epic in their scale, and dramatically illustrate the urgency felt by the many climate-change pessimists now in power who believe that mankind - and perhaps all life itself - will become the biggest loser of a warming earth. But these images may be better suited to Hollywood films like The Day After, and not to the formulation of national or global policy. Indeed, these very same images of the Arctic's transformation also fuel the imaginations of a few brave climate change optimists who don't buy into the mantra that the sky is falling, or that mankind drastically must change or die, and who in fact believe a warmer earth may be both more bountiful and unified than today's belligerent planet. With the warming of the earth, they see many new rays of hope.
They imagine a better, more integrated world where international shipping will take the direct northern route linking Asian and North American markets to Europe, cutting consumption of fuel, stimulating the economic development of Arctic port communities and bypassing chokepoints vulnerable to terrorism or piracy. With the thawing of the Arctic, the polar basin will at last fulfill its metaphorical potential as an Arctic Aegean, a modern-day Mediterranean - literally a crossroads of the world - with a robust trading relationship counterbalancing strategic competition, as the geophysical separation of East and West by the continent-sized barrier of polar ice comes to an end. And once the physical barrier is gone, political barriers will likely also fall, just as they did once the Berlin Wall came down and the divided peoples of East and West found they had a great deal more in common to unite them than many Cold Warriors had believed.
In the geopolitical terms of Sir Halford John Mackinder, the famed theorist of geopolitics, the long isolated "Lenaland" of the Arctic will transform into a highly productive and strategically important circumpolar "Rimland" - transforming the polar basin into a true strategic, economic and military crossroads of the world. Tomorrow's Arctic will no longer be on the periphery, no longer an "Ultima Thule" but now a "Midnight Sea," at the midpoint of the world's sea routes, like the Mediterranean in ancient times. The coming Arctic Spring promises to be a new age of opportunity and change, as globalization and climatic transformation finally reunite the four corners of the earth, with the North Pole at its very center.
And so as Copenhagen approaches its conclusion, and as the pleas for a more self-sacrificial effort to forestall the tragic fate imagined for us all become more impassioned, with talk of emission caps, a capital fund by which the industrialized North can subsidize the greening of the much poorer South, and an apparent widening of the rift that separates the bottom from the top of the world, we should counter with a more optimistic vision, and a can-do attitude that recognizes our world may be transformed, but not necessarily destroyed. After all, the true climate villain has long been the industrialized West, though the rapidly industrializing economic powerhouse of China is now as rigorous a polluter as the United States and Europe; broadly speaking, it has been the northern hemisphere that has got us into this mess, by belching forth a steady torrent of carbon effluent since the Age of Industry first liberated man from a life of toil on the land, and from the whim of weather.
And so mankind's very freedom, first from the hard life of agricultural labor, and increasingly, from the increasingly automated procedures of the factory floor, has been tied to man's prodigious carbon output. As the greenhouse gases have poured forth, mankind has enjoyed an increasing life span, a dramatic increase in living standards, and the emergence of a new, post-modern digital culture that unites the planet as it has never before been united.
And so Chancellor Merkel was correct to see a link between mankind's freedom and that of the Earth's warming, but she views climate change as the new threat to freedom, and not as the potent symptom of mankind's millennial achievement of freedom. It is a natural mistake, one being made by millions of climate-change activists who have taken to the streets to demand we slow down, and try to reverse, the warming trend. Czech President Vaclav Klaus, one of the most prominent climate-change skeptics, views the matter differently. As he told Peter Robinson at Stanford University's Hoover Institution on Dec. 1st, global warming is a "politician's myth," and the dogma of the climate-change movement is ominously reminiscent of the failed ideology of communism.
A month earlier, at the Nov. 4th Washington Times Climate Change Policy Conference, President Klaus cautioned that "we should not forget how the doctrine of global warming came into being. In a normal case, everything starts with an empirical observation, with the discovery of evident trends or tendencies. Then follow scientific hypotheses and their testing. When they are not refuted, they begin to influence politicians. The whole process finally leads to some policy measures." But in fact, "none of this was the case with the global warming doctrine. It started differently. The people who had never believed in human freedom, in impersonal forces of the market and other forms of human interaction and in the spontaneity of social development and who had always wanted to control, regulate and mastermind us have been searching for a persuasive argument that would justify these ambitions of theirs. After trying several alternative ideas - population bomb, rapid exhaustion of resources, global cooling, acid rains, ozone holes - that all very rapidly proved to be non-existent, they came up with the idea of global warming. Their doctrine was formulated before reliable data evidence, before the formulation of scientifically proven theories, before their comprehensive testing based on today's level of statistical methods."
With the conclusion of Copenhagen fast approaching, and the specter the summit will end with a whimper and not a bang, it is vitally important that we re-consider this presumption of a climate crisis, and question the legitimacy of the foundation that climate activists have long argued underlies their cause. As Climategate sadly revealed, a dangerous undercurrent of dogma and ideology permeates the correspondence of CRU's climate scientists, who surrendered scientific objectivity, and science's embrace of complexity and inherent uncertainty, in favor of ideological certainty and rigidity. In so doing they undermined the very foundation of the climate change movement, revealing the skepticism of Czech President Klaus to be uniquely prescient.
We must not lose sight of this fact, especially here in the Far North. After all, the very top of our planet might be the biggest winner of climate change, and not the biggest loser as so many climate activists have sought to argue. It is our stake in the future now unfolding 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. As reported in Nunatsiaq News on Dec. 14, "Greenland wants to develop and gain financial independence from Denmark, which would require a doubling its output of climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions, Greenland's premier Kuupik Kleist said during a Dec. 14 news conference in Copenhagen." Kleist explained that "Greenland has the right to pursue industrial development and offer its citizens more access to jobs, education, health care and independence-even if that means substantially increasing its production of climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions."
Greenlanders see the glacial retreats and earlier spring ice melts as an opportunity for growth and development, a view shared by many across the North. 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 in discussion 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. Now, perhaps, the Far Northern perspective can be considered, so that our hopes and dreams - long absent from the discourse of the diplomats in Copenhagen - 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 (Praeger Books, October 2009); On Thin Ice: The Inuit, the State and the Challenge of Arctic Sovereignty (Lexington Books, November 2009); and Breaking the Ice: From Land Claims to Tribal Sovereignty in the Arctic (Lexington Books, March 2008). He directs the Arctic Security Project for the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.
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