The Arctic Council — the body concerned with the future management of the region — met today in Kiruna, Sweden’s most northern city, built around the world’s largest underground iron mine. As is perhaps inevitable when digging an enormous hole in the ground, the iron mine is now found to be pulling the town down into it; Kiruna is either going to fall in, or its going to be moved, brick by brick, 4km away. The sense of a community on the edge permeates this tough Northern outpost.
Kiruna will survive, because its people are resilient and resourceful. But whether the culture, wildlife, economy and infrastructure of the region can survive the twin crises of climate change and rapid and poorly regulated industrialisation is a more open question. Not least because the Arctic Council, originally established to protect the Arctic and its Peoples, too often proves better at defending the interests of extractive industries and big business.
The governments of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Russia, the US and Canada all know that two-thirds of the world’s remaining fossil fuel resources must stay in the ground if we are to stand a chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. In one report after another, Arctic Council scientists present irrefutable scientific evidence about impacts of fossil fuel extraction on the region; the loss of sea ice, the acidification of the oceans; and more locally, the huge risks of oil drilling in one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems, where it would be almost impossible to clean up a spill.
Yet the Council remains apparently paralysed and unable to take any concrete steps to stop the oil rush that is threatening to engulf this region in a cascade of changes from which it might never recover. The reason for this gulf between this understanding of risk — and the ability to act — is simple. In Canada, the US, Russia and Norway, the Arctic Council also encompasses some of the largest fossil fuel producing nations in the world — nations whose political systems, finances, wider economy and even cultures are profoundly entangled with the interests of the fossil fuel industry.
The situation is painful, absurd, tragic and deeply, deeply frustrating. Earlier today, US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of the necessity of curbing climate change to protect future generations. He called it a life or death situation. Yet the influence of oil money on US politics remains a roadblock to all of the steps that the country could take to tackle the crisis. Canada talks of reducing black carbon emissions, whilst continuing to pour money and unprecedented backroom effort into securing global markets for tar sands — the dirtiest fossil fuel of all.
Yet grotesque as this position is, it is neither stable nor inevitable. The evidence that bold action is essential for our collective survival is overpowering. The voices of those suffering the consequences of rapid change in the Arctic — particularly the voices of Indigenous Peoples who for too long have not had control over their own futures — cannot and will not be ignored forever. Beyond the Arctic, more and more people are realising that their lives, livelihoods and cultures can only be protected if we decide to untangle the Gordian knot of our relationship with the fossil fuel industry. From changes to the monsoon systems of Asia to the rising sea levels and devastating storms affecting people from the Seychelles to Manhattan, the consequences are clear and the choices, unavoidable.
The result is that the Arctic Council is now at a political tipping point: if they do nothing but research and chat — they will have failed the people of the Arctic and the wider global community.
And so too is the environment is at a tipping point. The contradictions between politics and reality might make us angry, but shouldn’t allow us despair. Together we can shift the balance.