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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.

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.

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