In 2020, I’m hoping to recommit to writing more regularly on Cryopolitics. The past year has been exactly the sort that happens when you’re busy making plans.
A few days ago, the Earth entered a new decade (though when the North Pole rang in the new year remains unclear).
In 2020, I’m hoping to recommit to writing more regularly on Cryopolitics. The past year has been exactly the sort that happens when you’re busy making plans. Regrettably, I haven’t been able to devote as much time to blogging as I have in the past 11 (!) years. The pressures of a tenure-track position, which demands peer-reviewed publications rather than blog posts coupled with a full travel schedule, family commitments, and keeping up with running and friends in my spare time makes it easy for blogging to fall by the wayside. But this year, hopefully I can get back to posting weekly, even if sometimes my posts end up on the shorter side.
As the time has flown by, the ice has declined drastically, too. I started writing about the Arctic for the Foreign Policy Association’s Arctic blog in 2009. That year, the minimum extent of Arctic sea ice, reached annually in September, was 5.10 million square kilometers. Ten years later, in 2019, the minimum extent was 4.15 million square kilometers – almost twenty percent less.
With over a decade of reporting on the Arctic under my belt, sometimes I feel like I’ve run out of things to say. After all, there are only so many ways to recount the sad saga of melting sea ice. I also sometimes get the feeling that not only am I writing the same things: the same stories are repeating themselves, too. Whether that repetition is happening in reality or is a product of the media cycle is hard to say.
Blog headlines ten years ago
Here’s a look at some of the first few entries I ever wrote in 2009:
- Russia to increase presence in the Arctic (February 13, 2009)
- Canada to build research station in Nunavut (February 20, 2009 – at least it’s finally opened!)
- As Kremlin pushes into Arctic, Russians desert en masse (February 24, 2009)
- New oil developments in the Arctic (March 4, 2009)
News headlines today
Over ten years later, as some recent headlines show, news outlets recycle the themes of Russian (and now Chinese) antagonism both against the West and their own citizens. Viz.:
- The 5 most important races for the Arctic: Global players are eyeing the region as a new ‘no man’s land’ that is up for grabs (Charlie Duxbury, Politico, January 1, 2020)
- As polar ice melts, Russia and China probe — at America’s expense (Editorial Board, Chicago Tribune, December 31, 2019)
- New Russian method to silence dissent: Military service in the Arctic (Ivan Nechepurenko, The New York Times, December 24, 2019)
This last headline is particularly absurd because forced labor in the Arctic and Siberia is one of the oldest tricks in the book for the Russian government. In fact, during the Soviet Union, GULAG laborers and military prisoners built much of the infrastructure still in use in the Russian Arctic today, from mines to railways to the White Sea-Baltic Canal – the first megaproject built by Soviet forced labor.
Goldman Sachs: taking the easy way out
Among the tried, true, and tired stories, however, one headline jumped out as novel:
- Goldman Sachs agreed to stop funding Arctic drilling. Will other banks join them? (Bernadette Demientieff, The Guardian, January 3, 2020)
Demientieff, the author of the op-ed and the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, applauded the American multinational bank for announcing earlier this year that it would not finance oil drilling or exploration in the Arctic. In its first update to its environmental policy framework since 2015, the company wrote, ” We will decline any financing transaction that directly supports new upstream Arctic oil exploration or development. This includes but is not limited to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” (It’s worth underscoring that Goldman Sachs specifically noted that they wouldn’t finance “new” upstream development. All bets remain off for the many existing projects across the Arctic.)
Goldman Sachs’ stance is drawing applause. Certainly, it is consequential when large banks decide to stop financing certain types of projects. Were it not for a $400 million loan from British bank Barclays’ to the Karahnjukar hydropower plant in the Icelandic highlands, the environmentally devastating megaproject might not have been built.
Yet Goldman Sachs’ stance is neither pioneering nor revolutionary. Already, for instance, in October 2019, Nike and the environmental non-profit organization, Ocean Conservancy, launched the “Arctic Shipping Corporate Pledge.” By signing up, companies commit to not sending their goods on ships across the north.
Yet it seems like a lot of these pronouncements and pledges are often little more than greenwashing. With most of its factories in southeast Asia and even South Africa, as its “manufacturing map” highlights, would Nike have ever seriously considered shipping its shoes through the Arctic? Similarly, were other signatories like fast-fashion purveyor H&M or clothes retailer The Gap ever really going to start plying the Northern Sea Route?
Going back to Goldman Sachs’ promise to stay out of the Arctic, oil has sat around $60 a barrel since 2015. That’s significantly below the average break-even price for Arctic oil. On the high end, it’s around $90, making the region’s fossil fuel the priciest in the world to get out of the ground.
It makes absolutely zero environmental sense to drill for Arctic oil. As a Nature paper (paywalled) by Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins stressed in 2015, to limit global warming to 2°C, all Arctic oil should be kept in the ground.
But for investors, more importantly than the environment, it makes little economic sense to drill right now, either. Meanwhile, the positive press to be gained from opposing Arctic drilling makes taking a public position against the industry appealing. It’s little wonder, then, that one of the biggest changes in 2019 compared to 2009 is the vociferous retreat of North American and European investors who either wouldn’t have profited or had any use for Arctic oil or shipping.
This year, stay tuned for more companies that never really had much of a stake in the Arctic to loudly proclaim that they, too, won’t dirty their reputations by getting involved in the region’s oil and gas or shipping. More notable would be if they decided to stop financing the region’s mines, which are developing at a rapid rate in places like Norway and Greenland. Credit Suisse, for instance, owns a 20.6% share of the Nussir mine project, a controversial copper development in northern Norway.
It’s easy for banks to turn away from a bad bet, but the real test for their environmental credentials will come when doing good for Planet Earth hurts their bottom line.
And now for a podcast…!
If you’re tiring of my writing, you can instead listen to my voice on this Sustainable Asia podcast for which I was interviewed late last year. It’s the second of a two-part series exploring China’s polar frontiers in Antarctica and the Arctic.