Tempers are flaring over the Arctic Ocean. The heat may melt the sea ice faster than climate change. The fate of polar bears is not the greatest problem facing humankind, but it’s a great case study of the conflict between politics and science.
Since the sixteenth century, explorers have searched for a northwest passage over the Americas and a northeast passage over Asia. Unsuccessful, these searches led to two great engineering achievements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Suez and Panama Canals. Exploration in the north did lead to discovery of gold in Alaska and coal in Svalbard. Later, discovery of oil on the North Slope of Alaska was the greatest new find of the late twentieth century. A similar discovery of gas on Russia’s Yamal Peninsula is likely to change the world gas market.
Life in the Arctic has always been tough for natives, for explorers, and for those who seek to harvest its riches. A Google search turns up countless abandoned arctic settlements. Operations in the arctic have gotten easier. The aircraft made possible the first undisputed human foot on the pole in 1948. Ten years later a nuclear submarine passed under the ice at the pole. In 1977, the first icebreaker made it to the pole. Technology helped.
In the intervening forty years, the challenge of the ice has decreased. In the twenty-first century, ships not specially prepared for ice have made both the northeast and northwest passages. Meanwhile, the scientific community studies the data from satellites and surface observations, confirming the anecdotal evidence from arctic residents.
In 2017, commercial interests see arctic opportunities for oil and mineral exploitation. They propose shipping routes that are far shorter than the equatorial routes we’ve used for a hundred years. The Prudhoe field in Alaska is past its peak, but there are new fields to be explored down the coast in ANWR and offshore. The Russians have developed nickel deposits in Siberia shipped from ports now kept clear of ice year-round.
Commercial interests have only a passing interest in what comes in a hundred years. They concentrate on what is possible now. Coal in Svalbard, nickel in Siberia, oil in Alaska, and trans-arctic shipping are all possible today. The Russians have brought icebreaking to an art form, building an icebreaker that can travel from Murmansk to the pole in 79 hours, an average speed of 16 knots. They intend to open the Northern Sea Route from Norway to the Bering Strait and charge a toll. In 2017, the icebreaking LNG tanker Christophe de Margerie made the trip on its own from Norway to South Korea. Indeed, the northern route is a thing. The owner of that tanker has fourteen more on order. The tankers will serve the Yamal gas fields using a port at 71°16′ N.
Until April 2017, the United States had a ban on offshore drilling in the Arctic, but enterprising oilmen figured a way around that. They built an artificial gravel island; now it’s land-based drilling. Exploitation of the arctic is here.
Science in the arctic
As in many fields of endeavor, science in the arctic began with a military need. Our constellation of weather and ice observation satellites began as a defense program during the Cold War. Responsibility for those satellites eventually passed to NASA. That’s how NASA ended up in the climate business.
Climate became a political cause in the 1960s with parallel efforts in pollution cleanup and interest in the climate and population. The end of the world has always made good headlines. In the 1970s, papers wrote about overpopulation and a cooling climate. In 1988, the United Nations took an interest and created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Since then, that body has produced five major assessment reports, each a review of the existing research.
The IPCC reports paint a bleak picture of the future if current practices continue (“business as usual” or “BaU”). Rising sea levels and climate change will challenge our ability to house and feed the world’s population. They point to the atmospheric concentrations of CO2, product of industrialization, as the main culprit. The answer, they imply, is to change our industrial processes and reduce the amount of CO2 released by the burning of fossil fuels.
As with all science, the methods and conclusions of the various studies included in the IPCC library are subject to criticism. While the IPCC conclusions are generally accepted – resulting in a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 – criticism has been fierce. Many American politicians have taken a position doubting the reality of climate change altogether.
The various arguments against the IPCC conclusions are nuanced. At one end of the spectrum, some politicians point to instances of flawed data and demur, saying the facts are not all in. Others accept that the climate is changing, but deny that humans have had any effect. The corollary is that changing our practices will not change the course of the climate. Others deny the climate is changing at all. Sometime between December 2009 and February 2010, Trump came to deny global warming. He made it a campaign issue, but his rhetoric has slackened since election.
Reduction in fossil fuel use is an expensive proposition. Nuclear energy, while not a CO2 emitter, is not carbon neutral; it comes with its own risks. Wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal are imperfect solutions. Coal, oil, and gas remain the cheapest sources of energy, while they last. Any diversion from fossil fuels will slow world economic growth in the short run. Retooling for new energy sources and write-offs of old equipment make for strong arguments for the status quo.
Restriction on cheap fossil fuels will particularly affect developing economies, which aspire to the energy-intensive lifestyles of America and Europe. China and India still have huge populations that desire automobiles. Conspiracy theorists believe that world accords on carbon are designed to keep African economies in a low energy, low output mode.
Specific to the Artic, climate change deniers seek to limit the amount of research there, as if not knowing the facts will change the outcome.
Science, commerce, and conquest, once allied in imperial missions, have parted company in what now takes the form of contentious argument. The polar climate debate exposes the range of fallacious argument techniques. Both sides use them, but the IPCC’s opponents have more opportunities and take them.
The typical structure of an argument starts with cherry-picking an IPCC study and conclusion. A weak position is exposed then exploited to cast doubt on the conclusion. Then the author is singled out for ridicule and ad hominem arguments.
Both sides in this debate use the greed gambit. It’s an ad hominen argument. One attacks the motives of the other side. “The IPCC is an international cabal aiming to restrict economic growth.” “Ten thousand scientists get paid to study climate change. Of course they are going to find it, otherwise there’s no more money for studies.” On the other side: “Climate deniers make lots of money from business as usual; of course they would argue against climate change.”
It’s not as if there isn’t blame to go around. Climate activists rely on arguments from authority, describing doubters as crackpots and lunatics. They describe a cabal of shadowy think tanks and lobbying firms that promote climate denial.
Fights surface in the strangest places
In the arctic, a satellite program in place since 1979 is in jeopardy. The government had built the last set of eight DMSP satellites in a batch to save money, intending to launch new ones as the ones in polar orbit wore out. In January 2016, the House Armed Services Committee voted against spending $120 million to launch the last already-paid-for $500 million satellite. Opponents said the money was better burned in the parking lot. Proponents lamented that the satellite would be “made into razor blades.” The two remaining satellites in orbit, launched in 2006 and 2009, are unlikely to last until 2022, when a new generation will launch. In the meantime, there may be a gap in weather data and polar sea ice extent measurement while we wait for a new bird.
A civilian expedition of two sailboats headed off to the North Pole in August 2017. Whether they make it is anyone’s guess. A photograph of a sailboat at the pole would be iconic, proof that the ice cap is toast. As one might expect from a volunteer mission, the mission is replete with social media updates on the mission, its crew, and pets on the trip. Perhaps not surprisingly, internet doubters tried their hand at acerbic wit, ridiculing the expedition. Curiously, the quips were similar. It’s easy to find the source of the prickly remarks: two popular websites, wattsupwiththat.com and climatedepot.com. There remains a small but loud contingent arguing that nothing is wrong with our current practices.
Climate arguments pop up as cover for fundamentally economic or political ones. Candidate Trump claimed global warming was a myth created by the Chinese. His underlying problem was China’s large industrious workforce willing to produce products cheaper than the U.S. Climate provided cover.
Trump blamed climate-related rules and regulations for the decline of the coal industry. While his administration can relax regulation, it is powerless to change the favorable economic of natural gas. These are straw man arguments.
Climate arguments divide the political parties. Reagan began a campaign to depower the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. This effort has continued under each succeeding Republican administration and in the Congress. The partisan divide came into sharper focus after the 2000 election when Democratic candidate for President Al Gore gave up elected politics and took up environmental causes.
The influence of well-funded think tanks and lobbyist groups doubting climate change has declined since 2000, nevertheless, retail denial websites still generate two million visits per month. Their readers are committed and active, evidenced by their trolling. Trump made the argument that “global warming hoaxters” are justifying higher taxes. The argument was over taxes, but the villains were scientists. The argument helped bolster Trump’s win in November 2016.
Upcoming arctic fights
Test wells in Russia’s Kara Sea indicate reserves of 35 billion barrels. Rosneft has neither the money nor the technology to extract it. Exxon-Mobil, which owns a 33% stake in the field, is enjoined from working there since 2014 by Ukraine-related sanctions. Congress voted to limit the Trump administration’s ability to alter those sanctions.
In April 2017, Trump signed an executive order intended to relax restrictions on Alaska offshore drilling. It will take the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) some time to rewrite regulations. The BOEM will sell the first leases in 2019.
The big fight will be the undersea land grab. Under current international law, the coastal nations (Denmark, Norway, Russia, United States, and Canada) each have claims of 200 miles. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) nations can make claims on seabed areas that include the Continental Shelf. Denmark and Russia have both claimed areas defined by the Lomonosov Ridge. The United States would have a healthy claim on the Chukchi Sea, but precious little in the Beaufort Sea, where the continental shelf is narrow. Coastal states have ten years from their ratification of UNCLOS to make a claim. The United States has yet to ratify the agreement.
Before the U.S. ratifies UNCLOS, it will need to settle the matter of a 21,000 km2 (8,100 sq mi) pie-slice in the Beaufort Sea it disputes with Canada. It’s no small matter; the Canadians estimate the area has reserves of 6 billion barrels of oil. The United States has good reason to work on UNCLOS,
Not a matter of science; it’s the money
There are still plenty of arguments framed as politics versus arctic science, but the underlying issue is money. When you hear a climate argument, think about the money.