Our polar backyard

Economist explores what a melting Arctic means to the world

The Arctic is not under-covered. Some might even say the opposite is true. The polar bear has been “the poster child of climate change” for years, for instance, but communications experts worry that journalists’ fascination with the charismatic animal has made global warming seem like a distant problem and hindered public engagement. Reporters should localize climate-change coverage, these experts say, by focusing on energy use, public health, and other “backyard” angles.

It is possible to localize the Arctic itself, however. A good example of how this is done is a terrific 14-page special report in The Economist’s June 16-22 issue, which explores what “the vanishing north” means for global politics, trade, and natural resources.

“The Arctic, no longer distant or inviolable, has emerged, almost overnight, as a powerful symbol of the age of man,” writes James Astill, the magazine’s environment editor. He then sets out to scrutinize the region’s peril and promise over the course of eight articles, explaining that “the retreating ice offers access to precious minerals and new sea lanes—but also carries grave dangers.”

The package begins, logically, with a review of existing Arctic science, which lays out the basics: warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, thinning sea ice, melting permafrost, concern about so-called tipping points, and threats to biodiversity. This includes the obligatory mention of polar bears and it’s the driest part of the report. “Much of the change in the Arctic is understood; little of it is reassuring,” Astill reminds readers. But he localizes the science, to some extent, by citing tentative new research, which suggests that thawing can destabilize the Arctic’s “boundary layer,” allowing snowy winds to descend upon cities far to the south.

“In 2009 and 2010 Europe and America experienced two of the coldest winters on record. That was not because global warming is not happening, but because the climate system is complicated,” Astill explains, while cautioning, “It is too early to be sure about this.”

The report’s articles about politics, resources, and shipping more effectively cast the polar north as world’s backyard, however. According to the first:

As governments wake up to the changing Arctic, global interest in the region is booming. A veteran Scandinavian diplomat recalls holding a high-level European meeting on the Arctic in the early 1990s to which only her own minister turned up. “Now we’re beating countries away,” she says. “I’ve had a couple of African countries tell me they’re Arctic players.”

Asia’s big trading countries, including strong exporters like China and Japan, shipbuilders like South Korea and those with shipping hubs, like Singapore, make a more convincing case for themselves. All have applied to join the [Arctic Council] as observers, as have Italy and the EU. Half a dozen European countries with traditions of Arctic exploration, including Britain and Poland, are observers already.

Somewhat surprisingly, Astill reports that the United States “hardly sees itself as an Arctic country.” While American scientists are leaders in research there, he says, the government has shown “lukewarm enthusiasm for international decision-making” within the Arctic Council, which was created in 1996. Astill also contends that:

With the possible exception of the United States, where influential greens oppose drilling in Alaska, all Arctic coastal countries want [oil and gas] development.

Given that Shell is gearing up for exploration of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, that’s also a bit surprising, but Astill makes a strong case that “greens against governments, not country against country, looks likely to be the most serious sort of Arctic conflict.” Warnings about international discord are overblown, he says. From resources to shipping, development “is likely to be uncommonly harmonious” for three reasons: a profit-driven desire to work rather than fight, the high cost of operating in the region, and a strong reluctance among Arctic countries to give outsiders an excuse to intervene in the region’s affairs.

Whatever the case, Astill concludes in a final article about climate change, “the impending enrichment of Arctic countries would not compensate for the costs of Arctic warming,” which include loss of important species, habitats, and ecosystems.

The polar north may never resonate with news consumers the way that climate impacts felt closer to home do. But The Economist’s special report makes the region seem less distant and more entwined in our domestic affairs.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: ,