Playing Politics In The Arctic: To Drill Or Not To Drill

by Nick Breeze

 

The UK government responded to the Environmental Audit Committee’s (EAC) report on drilling in the Arctic Circle last week. Mark Simmonds MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, and Head of the Polar Regions Unit, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was questioned by members of the EAC led by Joan Walley. The committee was keen to try and understand why the government had completely ignored the report that called for a moratorium on drilling in the region due to the inherent risk of environmental damage and contributions to ever worsening climate change.

 

Although Mr Simmonds thanked the EAC for their hard painstaking work, underpinned by independent scientific evidence from experts in this particular field, he then proceeded to make a series of statements that demonstrated he has little or no understanding of the environmental dangers posed to the region itself, or the implications of what a hotter planet really means for us as a collective population the world over.

 

arctic-temperature- NASA ImageNASA Image showing Inceased Warming In The Arctic Region

 

The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on the planet, estimated to be around 8-10 times faster than lower to mid latitudes. This is visually evident in the rapid decline of Arctic sea ice that is now exposing vast areas of ocean and accelerating warming. Climate scientists such as Professor Peter Wadhams in Cambridge have noticed that the ice has lost over 40% of its thickness since measurements began and is going into full collapse. The speed is catching everyone by surprise but most interestingly it creates two camps of very divergent views as to how we should react:

 

The first view is from climate scientists who are working to try and understand what the implications of an ice free Arctic actually are. What we do know is that an ice free Arctic means global warming increases to roughly double the human contribution from burning fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas. This is due to the reflective white ice being replaced by absorbing dark ocean. This causes the ocean to heat up and increases the release of methane, a far more deadly greenhouse gas CO2. There is enough methane trapped in Arctic permafrost to send global temperatures very high. The second implication is that the area around Greenland is heating up, causing accelerated melt of the colossal ice sheet. If the ice sheet goes we get 7 metres sea-level rise. New evidence is showing that this could happen much faster than previously thought, in a matter of decades as opposed to centuries. A third consequence is that the warming of the region is having a “meandering” effect on the jet stream that oscillates around the northern hemisphere, playing a vital role in delivering weather patterns, the stability of which is a requisite for stable climate and, in turn, large-scale food production.

 


Prof. Peter Wadhams, Head of Polar Ocean Physics Group, Cambridge University

 

The second view is the one held by hydrocarbon industries and those that benefit financially from them. This is that an ice free Arctic represents an opportunity to extract more fossil fuels to sell for profit. The extraction view is based up on the assumption that we can continue to burn coal,oil and gas with out any consequences. This is summed by by a quote from Mark Simmonds MP from his response to the EAC: “It is a commercial decision as to whether the oil and gas is extracted from the Arctic.... I don’t think it is a practicable way forward to try and structure a limit on multinational hydrocarbon extraction. I think we’re quite rightly focussed on emissions and trying to limit the emissions to reach the two degree target.”

 

Personally I fall in the first camp. Why? Simply put, two degrees of warming means we lose the planet that we were born into. It means we lose the ice-sheets and have to suffer weather extremes that are already intensifying at the current 0.8C warming. Another note on semantics is that calling 2C a “target” implies that we are trying to get there. We should certainly not be trying to get there. We should be doing everything we can to stop fossil fuel extraction and the subsequent emissions that come from burning them.

 

Some of the toughest and most revealing questioning came from Caroline Lucas, who clearly does have a very good knowledge of Arctic region. Mr Simmonds put forward his assertion that there was no reason why unfettered oil and gas extraction should not impede the ability “to reach the 2C target” (he actually called it a 2% target on more than one occasion), suggesting there was no link between extraction of oil and gas and the subsequent emissions from burning them. Mrs Lucas sought to clarify this very odd claim, he then went a step further saying that we should actually be worrying more about the thawing permafrost that poses an emissions risk far greater than what humans are capable of. Such ignorance beggars belief. Thankfully Mrs Lucas was able to make the point succinctly that the permafrost is actually thawing as a result of the earth’s sensitivity to a heating planet that stems from our burning of fossil fuels. 


Mark Simmonds-crop
Mark Simmonds MP - Photograph taken by Sam Friedrich

One of Mr Simmonds biggest mantras (stated three times) was, “We mustn’t be seen to be trying to impose from the outside on sovereign countries as to what their priorities should be within their national boundaries.” Perhaps not when British companies such as BP and Shell that are desperately trying to get themselves embedded in the region are involved. But is this actually correct? If the policies and actions of Arctic states create unstable climate conditions that increase poverty, starvation and conflict, shouldn’t we all, the world over, stand up and say, “We have jurisdiction in this region because your actions are a threat to all of our way of life... potentially even forging a pathway to death!” Mark Simmonds believes Britain’s role is to be a chummy “yes” man with the ability to do profitable deals regardless of the impacts that threaten to do us harm.

 

What is apparent in Mr Simmonds rhetoric is that he believes very strongly that economics are independent of environmental concerns. In one slightly skewed sentence he said: “There has to be a balance between reaching the 2% [sic] target and achieving economic growth.” In the context of basing economic growth on fossil fuel extraction, it is now a fact that such a strategy is a nil sum game. There are simply no winners. I’m not sure if there is any link between the inflows of cash from oil companies as party donations, as pointed out in the press recently, or whether there is a genuine governmental knowledge gap in the area of climate science which is so critical when dealing with the polar regions. Unfortunately, it is just these areas that fall under Mr Simmonds governmental responsibility. 

 

He then goes on to make an extraordinary statement on behalf of the Arctic Council and the hydrocarbon companies he is so enamored with: “I can assure you that Shell, BP and other UK companies take extremely seriously the potential environmental impact and making sure they do everything possible to mitigate any eventualities.” Putting this in the context of Mr Simmonds role as an Member of Parliament, elected to serve the people in his constituency with additional national responsibilities, why would he then ignore a detailed expert report that is in the interest of the people he is paid to serve, instead preferring to serve the vested interests of multinational oil companies who are legally bound to deliver profits to their investors? It can only beg a further question: who does Mark Simmonds actually represent? As the bulging human population around the world sits on the precipice of a food and water crisis due to dramatic increases in temperature, pegged to increased levels of carbon dioxide, caused from burning fossil fuels, I can quite honestly say that this man does not represent me. This level of delusion, and perversion of the truth, that is now so widespread and understood, means that we have a very critical systemic problem in the politicians that are driving us forward to a degraded and unstable future. 

 

The sad truth in this is that this Minister’s light hearted assertions about Arctic policy are not in line with key figures such as Dr. Fatih Birol, Chief Economist for the International Energy Agency (IEA). Dr. Birrol in an interview with the BBC’s ‘HARDtalk’ show in January 2013, ended the interview by saying: “I’m becoming more and more pessimistic. We are perfectly in line for a 6C temperature increase which will have devastating effects for all of us.” It is worth mentioning that Dr Birrol authors the annual ‘World Energy Outlook’, the world’s most influential energy report. His view on reducing emissions is directly inline with the leading climate scientists such as Dr James Hansen or Dr. Michael Mann: “Climate change problem needs a market signal such as a price on carbon - phase out fossil fuel subsidies!” He also reveals that only 8% of the half a trillion dollars that are meant to go to the lowest 20% poorest income levels in the form of subsidy, actually reach that destination, yet we still subsidise big oil. We pay their costs instead of developing the carbon neutral energy solutions that are attainable and intrinsically linked to our ability to continue to survive on Earth.

 

In summary, the EAC have done a good job delivering an evidence based report highlighting the risks and dangers of drilling in the Arctic. The politicians with one hand on the levers of power and the other in the pockets of oil companies, seem committed to a path of pollution and contamination in the name of “economic growth”. This fantasy of economic prosperity in the absence of a livable world will be the lament of many of us alive today. Without immediate change of course, it will be our children who will not find it in their hearts to forgive us when mired in the ruinous consequences of our inaction.


Dr Fatih Birol, Chief Economist, International Energy Agency (start at 10mins in)


We do still have a choice in this but the window through which we can jump to rectify the climate issues is getting smaller. Global emissions must be cut and the amount of known reserves of coal, oil and gas extracted must not exceed the 20-30% outlined by the IEA and others. Dr Birrol’s 6C warming is not a joke. A warming of 1C is creating world that puts all of us at risk. 6C is known to be suicide. I don’t know many suicidal people at all and I am thankful of that. The natural optimism that we all share can be harnessed to address these enormous issues and take our solutions to a scale that can really make a difference. We have the intelligence but we really do need effective leaders and policy makers. There is no reason why the big hydrocarbon companies must see the paradigm shift as an end to their business. Quite the opposite is possible if we are prepared to start the transition to the next phase in the development of life on Earth. Investments in new technologies have the potential for a new form of capitalism that places profit in the context of environmental responsibility that reconnects us with the planetary systems from which we evolved. It will happen but we, the public, must speak up before it is too late.

 

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