Earlier today at the Rio Earth Summit, Greenpeace joined forces with a host of famous names to demand that the uninhabited area of the High Arctic that lies around the North Pole be legally protected and kept off-limits to the companies and governments that are desperate to see it exploited.
But why should we bother?
What happens in the Arctic affects us all. Besides acting as a planetary air-conditioner, the region is a bellwether for the health of our climate and the global ecosystem.
The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on Earth. Ice is disappearing at unprecedented levels and with it the habitat of species like the polar bear, while the way of life of the four million people who live above the Arctic Circle is changing forever.
As the ice melts and is replaced by large patches of dark, open water, even more of the sun’s heat is absorbed and the melting increases. The frozen North is stuck in a vicious circle, with scientists talking about the sea ice entering a “death spiral.”
But rather than seeing this as a clear warning and spur to positive action, many governments and companies have taken a different, altogether more sinister, view: the retreating ice sheet is an opportunity to grab one of Earth’s last unclaimed areas and to profit from finding the resources that are currently locked away deep beneath the ice.
As a consequence, we are now witnessing the start of a dangerous new Arctic oil rush, as companies such as Shell, Gazprom and Cairn Energy manoeuvre their rigs amidst the ice floes and bergs of unfamiliar-sounding places like the Pechora and Chukchi Seas to drill for new oil. The bitter irony is that as the ice retreats because of our addiction to fossil fuels, industry is moving into this pristine region to extract even more climate-wrecking oil.
Sadly, this particular joke is on all of us.
The creeping industrialisation of the far North says something fundamental about our relationship with this planet. Having visited the Arctic on a Greenpeace ship myself, I’ve experienced its vast emptiness, its deafening silence and the awesome splendour of its giant peaks of silver ice. To me the Arctic encapsulates that longing within us for the wild. It is synonymous with the incredible power of nature.
But it seems not everyone shares this view. The fact that many now see the vanishing of the Arctic ice cap as a good thing because it provides a bit more oil and gives countries a chance to flex their geopolitical muscles and claim ownership of the North Pole itself (as well as spend billions of dollars on new hi-tech military hardware) suggests that something is deeply wrong. And must change.
When I was at school I was fascinated with maps and atlases. I would spend hours poring over globes and one image has stayed with me from then: in whichever book I read, the top bit of the world was always white. I found that thick band of snow and ice somehow reassuring, inviolate. It’s incredible today to think that in a few short years that white band at the top of our planet could be gone.
This is why Greenpeace is taking action to Save the Arctic today.
If we don’t do this, no one will. The frozen North will become a memory and we are not prepared to let that happen. We're not going to sit by while greedy companies and selfish politicians destroy this beautiful, fragile environment. We're drawing a line in the ice.
But we need your help to build a movement strong enough to face down the combined might of the Arctic nations, Big Oil and the industrial fishing fleets. While it’s amazing having support from the likes of One Direction and Paul McCartney, the truth is that we’re only going to succeed in saving the Arctic with your help.
We’ve got to show that people from all corners of the globe want the Arctic to be protected.
Together we can do this.
Sign the Arctic Scroll and help save the Arctic
Ben Ayliffe is the Senior Polar Campaigner at Greenpeace International