Skip to main content

In 2007, The Globe and Mail's Brian Gable drew a sadly prescient cartoon depicting two polar bears clinging to a lone piece of ice in the Arctic Ocean as prospectors went searching for the oil and gas bonanza lying underneath. The bears could only marvel that the Latin name for our species means "wise men". Yet here we are a few years later locked in a high stakes competition with Russia and Denmark to claim to the North Pole principally because, as the Statement on Canada's Arctic Foreign Policy makes clear, we seek "the responsible and sustainable development of oil and gas in the North." Sadly, as Mr. Gable's polar bears apparently know better than us, there probably is no such thing.

Only if we can destroy the Arctic ice sheet, which reached its record minimum in 2012, do the huge economic payoffs dreamt of by our northern strategists become fully feasible. By ridding ourselves of that pesky protective barrier, the glistening deep-water ports, booming Northwest Passage maritime traffic, and bristling forest of oil platforms finally can come to be. Thus it is sadly apparent that the current government, far from denying the impacts of climate change, is committing the country to profit from its eventuality. In so doing, we will succumb ever more deeply to our fossil fuel addiction at the same time as we bear witness to its ravages.

Canada has stewardship of a vast portion of the earth's surface but cannot be trusted to manage it for the common benefit of mankind. If our claims to the North Pole were accompanied by a solemn pledge to leave it untouched, the land grab might seem more benign. But we did not spend $200-million on mapping the seabed in order to protect it for future generations. That money was venture capital.

Nor can any solace be found in the schemes of our competitors. In their Strategy for the Arctic 2011-2020 the Danes do make pious statements about conserving the environment and mitigating climate change. However, they also make clear that they are rushing after oil and gas. The Russians make no bones about this at all in their Arctic policy document of 2008 and are already acting accordingly. The pox is spreading from all the houses.

Here is a hard truth that is more tragic than inconvenient. Our problem is not that oil and gas reserves are running out. It is that we must stop ourselves from using them. The Arctic provides us with some of the most compelling evidence for this. Scientists have documented the loss of the last Arctic refugia, which had until the mid-1990s been resisting temperature increases and are now rapidly transforming due to climate change. The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change documents progressive loss of sea ice, glacier and ice sheet coverage, and connects this directly to our greenhouse gas emissions. And a recent report of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences cites the rapid decline of Arctic sea ice as an example of the sort of abrupt human-induced climate change that can occur as we hit our biosphere's tipping points.

Loss of ice in remote regions may not strike Canadians as particularly disturbing while they look out of frozen windows and dream of balmy days. But surely we can understand the havoc we are already wreaking upon our earth's inter-connected climate systems even if things look tranquil just outside the door. So let's contemplate if we must the riches flowing from Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's "as big and as bold as possible" claim to Arctic territory. But let's also acknowledge that if we pursue them, we will thereby profit from the misery of others elsewhere on the planet and in the future we are bestowing upon it.

Richard Janda is a professor at the Faculty of Law, McGill University, and an associate member of the School of Environment

Interact with The Globe