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Ice patterns and icebergs are seen in Croaker Bay near Devon Island in Canada's Arctic, Friday, July 11, 2008. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ice patterns and icebergs are seen in Croaker Bay near Devon Island in Canada's Arctic, Friday, July 11, 2008. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Arctic Circle panel

Is climate change a northern catastrophe or an Arctic opening? Add to ...

This is part of The North, a Globe investigation of unprecedented change, to the climate, culture and politics of Canada’s last frontier. Join the conversation with #GlobeNorth

The Globe’s Artic Circle panel of experts and leaders is discussing five key questions about Northern issues. Their responses and conversations have appeared on Globe Debate.

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Doug Saunders: The crucial factor in the future of the North is the melting of the polar ice cap, already well underway. How will this change the lives, economies and security realities of the North? Will the opening of the Northwest Passage create major new economic and security challenges, or is this exaggerated? Will there be a resource boom, and if so who benefits? Will the lives of Northern peoples be disrupted and their traditional ways damaged by climate change, or will they benefit from autonomy and development that may flow from ownership of natural resources?

Rob Huebert: Climate change will be one of many crucial factors that will change the lives, economies and security realities of the North. However, the international energy system, the rising power of the Asian nations, new global technologies and changing attitudes of youth world-wide are all combining in the north in a way that is still not well understood.

Climate change is the factor that has captured our attention, and it does act as a metaphor for all the other processes. The creation of this process is occurring far away from the North, but the impacts it creates are felt acutely in the North. We may recognize that its impact is huge, but we do not really understand the inherent contradictions it is creating. The waterways may be opening, but the roads and airports are being compromised in ways that negate all of the advantages that an open maritime corridor may provide.

If we return to the core elements of the question -- what is the impact of climate change on the future of the north? -- several observations can be made.

First, will the opening of the Northwest Passage create new economic and security challenges? The answer to this is an unequivocal yes. A narrative has developed over the last few years that Canada should not get too excited over the increasing ship traffic on the Russian side. Many have pointed to the NWP and said there are physical and climatic differences that will always make the Northern Sea Route [above Russia] preferable. Ultimately the supporters of this view have come to the conclusion that the Canadian route will always be too expensive and dangerous. I believe this view to be wrong. The fact that the company owning the Nordic Orion are planning up to 10 voyages next year proves that it can be done on an economic basis; otherwise why do so many trips?

We can expect many more companies to begin to begin to prepare voyages. When this begins, how much Canada can gain will depend on how well we prepare. The more we prepare for this with services placed in the communities along the routes the more they will be used to the benefit of these communities: Build it and they will use it. We need only remember the changes that Singapore experienced to understand how this can be done. They moved from being a backwater ex-naval base at the end of the Second World War to becoming a central maritime hub. They recognized the changing technological revolution that shipping was going through with the development of the container and redesigned their ports to take advantage of this. We in Canada have not thought through the revolution that is now occurring with ice-capable ship construction. The South Koreans have, we have not. Will we?

On the resource front, we have again not paid as close attention to the many technological and political revolutions that are now reshaping the world demand for energy. Have we yet figured out how North Dakota and Saudi Arabia are connected to reshape the future for oil development in the Arctic? What does it mean that most observers completely missed the fact that gas fracking technology was successfully used by small independent companies to turn North Dakota into an oil powerhouse?

The prediction is that by 2020, the United States will be self-sufficient in oil. This in turn means that the U.S. will reduce its dependence on Saudi Arabia. What then does it mean for the companies that are now thinking about developing the Canadian North? The issue of future development of oil and gas is not about climate change but about other geopolitical processes that are right now virtually impossible to predict.

Finally, the rise of the Asian powers means that in the future I suspect you will see Indian, Chinese and Japanese navies coming to Arctic waters and acting in a way very similar to the way Soviet and U.S. navies acted in the Indian Ocean in the 1980s and 1990s. We will need to deal with these new interests to ensure that our security is best protected.

Shelagh Grant: Global warming is a scientific fact, and so far its effect on the Arctic has been more pronounced than elsewhere. While the melting permafrost and sea ice may offer new opportunities for extraction of mineral resources, oil and gas, there are also costly negative effects, such as damage to roads, buildings, landing strips and shorelines. Yet over the centuries, Inuit have shown an exceptional ability to adapt traditional practices to changing circumstances and there is nothing to suggest they will not succeed again.

With improved access to mineral and energy resources, further development is inevitable. Hence protection of the fragile environment against pollution, whether by accident or deliberate, will not only require strict regulations but the means to enforce them. The opening of the Northwest Passage will most certainly create security challenges, but so will the increased destination traffic of cargo ships and tankers moving in and out of the Arctic. This aspect has been understated, not exaggerated. The federal government’s failure to come through on its promises in a timely fashion could have dire consequences for all Canadians.

An economy based on extraction of non-renewable resources is not sustainable over the long term. Those who will gain the most benefit will be large corporations, their suppliers of material goods and services, contractors, engineers, industrial architects, shippers, along with whichever government acquires revenue from exploratory licenses, royalties and taxes. If the corporation is Canadian-owned, it stands to reason that more economic benefits will be retained in Canada than if foreign-owned. Some local inhabitants may find employment, but it will be of a menial nature unless they have sufficient education to qualify for specialized training. Although local small businesses may gain some benefit, it is very unlikely that any secondary refining or manufacturing will be carried out in the North as it is far cheaper to move raw product south.

Under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, the Inuit may have gained title to just over 350,000 square kilometres of lands, but only 10 per cent included subsurface rights. As long as there is revenue to be gained from the Crown lands, the federal government is unlikely to consider granting provincial powers to Nunavut Territory. But this does not mean that a portion of that revenue should not be transferred to the Nunavut government for urgent infrastructure needs, improved educational opportunities and medical services. Otherwise, we are left with a situation that history books a century from now may describe as deplorable – and “un-Canadian.”

Canadians are essentially faced with the necessity of completing the nation-building process begun in 1867. Previously, the frozen permafrost and sea ice did not make it viable to complete the marine transportation links to and throughout the Far North. We believed that updating communications and air routes would be sufficient. Times have changed and we must now update and expand the multiple marine highways or sea routes throughout the Arctic and sub-Arctic to complete the nation-building goals begun by John A. Macdonald and continued by Wilfrid Laurier.

Unlike a century ago, Canadians must also be prepared to invest in protection of the Arctic environment and its inhabitants. The issue is not just about the future of the North, but the future of Canada.

Michael Byers: Climate change will continue with ever more disruption, unless humanity somehow finds the will to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Arctic will not find a new equilibrium, and the benefits of increased accessibility will eventually be negated by extreme weather, sea level rise, and global economic and social dislocation.

That said, some major economic opportunities will be present this century, in terms of resource extraction within the uncontested jurisdictions of the Arctic countries, and shorter routes for shipping. In September 2013, the Nordic Orion demonstrated the potential for international cargo shipping through the Northwest Passage -- if the Canadian government invests in services and infrastructure, as the Russian government is doing along its coastline. Across northern Canada, a prospecting boom shows the mining potential that comes with a vast geography, though again, investments in services and infrastructure are needed. Multiple potential sources of energy – not just oil and gas but also tidal and wind – remain largely untapped in Canada’s Arctic.

Northern peoples have not caused climate change, but they are suffering its consequences. Economic development that involves and benefits them cannot fix this and other wrongs, but it can provide some redress. Involving northern peoples offers another benefit, in the form of centuries of acquired wisdom. The Arctic is a dangerous place, especially for southerners.

Mary Simon: I’ve never quite understood the logic behind why the Government of Canada doesn’t want to be seen as a global leader in resolving the challenges of climate change. Yes, there needs to be a balance struck between sustained economic growth and climate-change mitigation measures, but what I don’t see is strategic investments that would put Canada at the forefront of learning from what is already happening in dramatic fashion in our Arctic communities.

Next to Russia, we have the largest Arctic coastline in the world, with communities stretching from Labrador and Nunatsiavut to the Beaufort Sea. We have a unique opportunity  to become known for our investments in the technologies needed to adapt to the changing conditions, to gather knowledge and monitoring data from the Inuit in the communities hardest hit by climate change and  to be the hub for international scientific effort to understand the dramatic changes that are occurring. The Arctic Council has declared ‘Acting on Climate Change’ as one of its concrete actions for this next term. Leona Aglukkaq, an Inuk from Nunavut and Canada’s Minister of the Environment. is the new chair of the Arctic Council so there is an unprecedented opportunity for Canada to show real leadership on climate change initiatives.  I really hope Canada will make something of their time as Chair of the Arctic Council.

 

John English: Climate change will profoundly influence Arctic governance, resource extraction and sustainable human development in the Arctic. The evidence of its impact is already ubiquitous in the North. There remain many uncertainties as to its future effects, but northerners seem unanimous in stressing the need to adapt to it.

The policies of the Canadian government in international organizations, including the Arctic Council, mininize the impact of climate change; but, paradoxically, the Prime Minister and his ministers appear to accept that climate change in the Arctic will have a large and, in their view, mainly beneficial impact. Resources will become accessible, the residents will benefit, and the North and South will become more closely entwined through the supply links that will form to create this northern boom.

Sometimes this happy tale unfolds. Alberta, Canada’s bankrupt province of the 1930s, became its wealthiest after the postwar oil boom. While there is much to criticize in the social, fiscal and economic approaches of successive Alberta governments, no one can deny that residents of Alberta and Canadians in general have benefited from the boom. Perhaps this Albertan experience influences the prime minister’s vision for the north. But Alberta’s pattern is not the norm. Ever since the first Spanish gold reached Europe's shores, the most common experience is a brief boom, a flow of riches to faraway financial capitals, and environmental, social, and political crisis where the resources were extracted. Canadian history, especially in the North, provides many examples of these sad tales.

Over the last decade, resource exploitation has dominated the politics of Greenland, and the debate will and must come to the Canadian north. How can we assure that northerners benefit from the exploitation of their lands and seas? How many workers should come from the South? How should the economic rents be shared? The recent description of the largest project in the Arctic, the $750-million Baffinland iron mine, is not reassuring. The Nunavut government wanted 85 per cent of the jobs to be reserved for Inuit, but only 30 per cent are -- even though the project is much smaller than originally planned. Baffinland’s vice president explains that they must hire outsiders because “a lot of people up here don't have education or skills.” Such an answer would never be acceptable in Alberta, but the project is well under way, and Inuit are largely spectators. It’s not a promising beginning. If self-government means control of one's fate this project clearly chips away at the ability to control.

The Northwest Passage will probably not become a frequent route in this century. The recent Lloyd’s analysis of its risks and potential is sobering reading for those who are optimistic about its possibilities. But there is no doubt that climate change will increase destinational shipping, resource development, and human contact. It will, as Michael Byers says, eventually create new difficulties with weather extremes, melting permafrost and rising sea levels and, without doubt, social disruption. It is, as the question suggests, “the crucial factor.”

To its credit, the government has reinvigorated interest in the Arctic and is taking part in the debate about its future. Its early promises, however, are mostly unfulfilled, and the focus is often blurred, often by lofty but empty rhetoric about sovereignty. There are ports to build, schools and clinics to establish, and linkages to make. Above all, northerners and southerners need a compact between, on the one hand, the peoples of the North and, on the other hand, those who exploit its resources and the politicians who permit that exploitation. Minus such a compact, the future will be as bleak as an abandoned mine. The debate about “subsidization” and the claim that residents of Nunavut are “subsidized” by over $24,000 each and those of Ontario about $1,500 is profoundly misleading. The rich endowment of public goods created long ago are an implicit “subsidy” for Ontarians, not to mention the access to first-class schools, hospitals and social agencies. The Charter enshrined the principle of equalization and, as far as possible, Canadians should be in a position to take advantage of the great opportunities the nation presents.

Wade Davis: Cloistered and insulated within urban space, in many cases living already in toxic conditions, city dwellers will not be the first to notice the consequences of global climate change. Nearly fifteen years ago I sat on the shore of Baffin Island with an Inuk elder, Ipeelie Koonoo, and watched as he carefully cleaned the carburetor of his Ski-doo engine with the feather of an ivory gull. He spoke no English, and I did not know Inuktitut. But with a friend translating, Ipeelie told me then that the weather throughout the Arctic had become wilder, the sun hotter each year, and that for the first time Inuit were suffering from skin ailments, as he put it, caused by the sky.

Some years later in Igloolik I sought out a remarkable man, Theo Ikummaq, who became a good friend. Theo was well known for having completed an epic journey by dogsled, 1,800 kilometres from Igloolik across Baffin Island, north along the shore of Ellesmere Island and across Smith Sound to Greenland. Theo thought he might have relatives living in the small Inuit community of Qaanaaq, the most northern settlement in the world. As it turned out he did, all descendants of legendary shaman Qitdlarssuaq and a small band of six families who had migrated north in the 1850s, taking two full years to reach Greenland. Theo had done the journey in two months. With a small film crew I invited him to return with me, on a charter flight of a mere six hours.

Almost immediately as the plane crossed over Baffin Island we could see from the expression on Theo’s face that something was wrong. It was April and our flight path was taking us 12 degrees south of the North Pole. The sea ice was not there. Smith Sound, which Theo had crossed with his sled dogs, was open water. He stared out the plane window in disbelief. A tear grew in his eye as he said to no one in particular, “The ice should be frozen by October. This year it didn’t come in until February. There were robins in Igloolik. We don’t even have a word for them birds.”

In Qaanaaq we introduced Theo to Jens Danielsen. Like Theo, Jens had made an epic journey with dogs, in his case retracing the route of Rasmussen’s Fifth Thule Expedition all the way from Greenland across the top of Canada to distant Alaska. In the company of these two remarkable individuals, Jens and Theo, our plan was to spend a fortnight on the ice, establishing a hunting camp beyond the western shore of Qeqertarsuaq Island, roughly two days from Qaanaaq. To get there we would travel by dogsleds.

As it turned out the dogs were of limited value once we reached the island of Qeqertarsuaq. There were great open leads in the ice, and we were obliged to hunt by boat. Jens was stunned. He had never seen open water in April. In his language the word sila means both weather and consciousness. Weather brings animals or leads them away, allowing people to survive or causing them to die. The ice, Jens explained, used to form in September and remain solid until July. Now it comes in November and is gone by March. The hunting season has been cut in half in a single generation. Jens told me of a trip he had made the previous summer. He and his family were hunting narwhal and it had rained every day. They had stood one afternoon alone on a headland, looking out to sea. “This is not our weather,” Jens had said. “Where does it come from? I don’t understand.”

Mary Simon has served as Canada’s first ambassador for circumpolar affairs, as president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and as lead negotiator for the creation of the Arctic Council.

Tony Penikett was NDP premier of Yukon from 1985 to 1992, and the Nunavut’s chief devolution negotiator until 2012.

Wade Davis is an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, explorer, photographer, filmmaker and author of 20 books focusing on remote and endangered cultures. He is a member of the University of British Columbia’s anthropology department.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC. He is the author of International Law and the Arctic.

Shelagh Grant is the author of Polar Imperative: A History ofArctic Sovereignty in North America and adjunct professor of Canadian studies at Trent University.

John English is the author of Ice and Water: Politics, Peoples and the Arctic Council. He holds academic positions at the University of Waterloo, the Munk School of Global Affairs and Trinity College at the University of Toronto.

Rob Huebert is associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. He has written and researched extensively on Arctic policy and defence issues.

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