The end of the north as we know it

Even a magazine like The Economist acknowledges the reality of rapid global warming—trouble is, business is waiting to cash in

Oil companies are set to be sitting pretty as a result of rapidly melting Arctic sea ice.

Oil companies are set to be sitting pretty as a result of rapidly melting Arctic sea ice.

The north is melting
I subscribe to both Adbusters—a savvy, decidedly anticorporate Canadian magazine that has no advertising—and The Economist, a British publication revered in the business world for its extensive coverage of world events as they relate to investment and the global economy. At seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum, the two magazines together provide me an extensive, well-written and -analyzed view of current events.

Interestingly, the June 16-22 issue of The Economist bears a cover photo of Arctic sea ice with the headline, “The vanishing north.” Inside is a 14-page special report called “The melting north” that goes into great detail in its acknowledgement of the fact that “[t]he Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet,” as Economist environment editor James Astill wrote.

“A heat map of the world, color-coded for temperature change, shows the Arctic in sizzling maroon. Since 1951 it has warmed roughly twice as much as the global average,” said Astill. “In that period the temperature in Greenland has gone up by 1.5 degrees C[elsius], compared with around 0.7 degrees C[elsius] globally. This disparity is expected to continue. A 2 degree C[elsius] increase in global temperatures—which appears inevitable as greenhouse-gas emissions soar—would mean Arctic warming of 3-6 degrees C[elsius].”

Astill points out that almost all of the Arctic’s glaciers have receded and that “[t]he area of Arctic land covered by snow in early summer has shrunk by almost a fifth since 1966.” In 2007, the amount of Arctic sea ice “crashed,” as Astill put it, melting to a summer minimum about half the average of that in the 1960s. “This left the north-west passage, a sea lane through Canada’s 36,000-island Arctic Archipelago [from Nome, Alaska, to Nuuk, Greenland], ice-free for the first time in memory.”

Astill goes on to declare that “[t]here is no serious doubt about the basic cause of the warming. It is, in the Arctic as everywhere, the result of an increase in heat-trapping atmosphere gases, mainly carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels are burned. Because the atmosphere is shedding less solar heat, it is warming.”

This would all be welcome information in a semi-twisted this-is-proof-of-global-warming kind of way, but that is where The Economist departs from the searing critique of the environment-degrading, oil-based capitalist economy that is the standard stuff of Adbusters. “In the long run the unfrozen north could cause devastation,” notes Astill. “But, paradoxically, in the meantime no Arctic species will profit from it as much as the one causing it: humans.

“Disappearing sea ice may spell the end of the last Eskimo cultures, but hardly anyone lives in an igloo these days anyway,” he says a little too coolly. “And the great melt is going to make a lot of people rich.”

For one thing, “climate change caused by burning fossil fuels will allow more Arctic hydrocarbons to be extracted and burned.”

Astill, as one would expect, does not rally for change that might help to shift the trend of global warming away from environmental catastrophe, but he does make some good observations, such as: “Oil companies are reluctant to admit that climate change plays a part in their northward shift. Naturally they do not want to be seen profiting from the environmental damage to which their activities have contributed.”