Natural Gas Riches in Arctic Norway
Norway's Snøhvit, or Snow White, is the northernmost natural gas facility in the world — and some oil companies' model for the future of the Arctic. Heat from the flame seen spouting into the air above could be felt from two miles away. (Photo courtesy McKenzie Funk)
Mention the phrase "global warming" to most people in the United States, and you're likely to get either an indifferent shrug or a passionate response on why it's happening and what we should do about rising seas and shrinking glaciers – or why it's not, and why we shouldn't.
But talk about it with someone from Greenland – where the rapidly melting ice is making it easier to get at vast deposits of gold, uranium, diamonds and rare earth minerals – and they see something else: a path for this Arctic island, a colony of Denmark since 1814, to become the world's first country created by global warming.
That's the paradox journalist McKenzie Funk found in six years of round-the-globe reporting for his new book "Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming," the story of the new economic opportunities climate change is opening up in some places – while slowly making life miserable (and eventually impossible) in others.
Funk traveled with the Canadian military on a mission to "defend" the Northwest Passage; to Greenland, where a secessionist movement hopes to unyoke the island from three centuries of Danish rule; to Senegal, where millions of trees are being planted to stop the encroaching Sahara; and to India, now building a wall around Bangladesh to keep out refugees from its sinking coasts.
All of these are unleashing actors to primed to see them as opportunities and ready to pounce – like the corps of private firefighters Funk found in Southern California, who hopscotch from house to house during a wildfire to protect their clients's houses (and only their clients' houses).
That was just one of the many examples Funk discovered, which we talked more about in an interview for his book:
What got you interested in this story?
I'd gotten an email newsletter about this Canadian military mission up to the Northwest Passage to defend it. I saw this and I was like, ‘wow that’s really weird.’ It’s the Canadians, and you wouldn’t think of them as being particularly bellicose.
They’re doing in part because of climate change opening up the Northwest Passage. At the last minute I happened to embed with them, and this was the story that launched the whole project.
Did you care about climate change before reporting the book?
Not much at all. I don’t think I’d considered it for a second before 2005, any more than any of the rest of us had. And so far as I had thought about it, I thought it was maybe not a very interesting topic to cover as a journalist, because it’s a lot about carbon and taxes and weird political machinations at various levels, either at the U.S. or even the U.N. It just didn’t seem like it was a very interesting thing to talk about.
It wasn’t until I went on this expedition, on this military mission, that I thought how people are reacting to it, or reacting to the idea of it already, and that reaction is intriguing. It covers the whole world, what’s happening with climate change, and lots of people are reacting in lots of different ways to it.
There's a chapter in the book on Shell, the oil company, and its stance on climate change. Did that surprise you?
Even Exxon has moved on from climate denial. There were certainly spending some money – not as much as people like to accuse them of – but they were certainly spending some money fomenting dissent or denial on climate change. That seems to have stopped.
Now, they say publicly now that we believe climate change is real. They've even said positive things about a carbon tax, that there's going to be some sort of climate control. Corporations aren't interested in fighting over whether it's real or not, they're just going on the side of the scientists who say it is. [They're] just looking to make money.
In places like Greenland, the people you met hardly seemed upset about climate change. In fact, they seemed happy about it.
That struck me too. It's not like I had any idea this was the way it would be when I started on this. I really hadn't thought about it at all. The back-and-forth [debate we have in America], is it real or is it not, it's just not a very interesting or useful conversation anymore, because the two sides are so entrenched.
The best indicator of whether you believe in climate change is not your level of education or scientific knowledge, it's actually what your political stripes are. Even in terms of denial or skepticism ... the more educated you are, there's actually a higher sense of denial. It's not an education problem in how people are coming at it.
Of all the places you went and the people you met, what struck you the most?
It was going places with people who are accused of being bad. The hedge fund manager I went with to South Sudan with, he was partnering with some well-known generals in one tribe, who were then looking to buy some farmland. [These were warlords who have been accused of human rights violations and war crimes, as well as stealing land.]
But what I was struck over and over again by, the Indians who are sort of like the minutemen of India trying to keep out the Bangladeshi refugees, by making sure there's a good fence. They were proud nationalists and regionalists who thought they were doing good. There wasn't a lot of outright evil as we conceive of it in the movies.
Why hasn't the world been able to make more progress on climate issues?
There's been a lot of emphasis on policy that's sort of gotten ahead of the public caring so much about climate change. Belief is one thing, but actually taking action and pushing for this or that is another. And even if there's a majority on the belief side (barely), there's certainly not a majority of people who care enough to make this an issue.
I think there's some hope, I think it's just the pace might not match. There's so much warming already in the climate, so much pre-baked warming ahead because of all the carbon into the climate that we don't seem like we're getting to alternative energy sources very quickly at all. And especially with a lot of the world developing on coal, I don't think we're even coming close to matching the pace.
We might eventually get there. Shell says we'll eventually get to a green world, there's just going to be a lot of bumps along the way.
Is finding a technological solution to climate change our only hope?
I think it can do a lot – for those who can pay for it. It isn't just unintended consequences that geo-engineering will backfire or something like that, though there is a concern there.
It's more that technology is for those who can buy it. And climate change is a global problem. In some cases, places will benefit as things heat up. Especially in Greenland, or if you're an oil driller in the Arctic. More to the point, places like Manhattan can afford a seawall; places like the Maldives or the Marshall Islands can't.
You get asked to comment on climate change thanks to the book. What's your take?
I understand the basics of climate science, but I'm not the best equipped to say this graph here you're pointing out is really cherry-picked or things like that. I was on a radio show this morning, and the host asked me to talk about it. But one journalist debating another journalist about things they don't have a scientific understanding of, is stupid.
It's stupid because neither side is going to convince the other. I said I don't think these kind of debates are very useful, people are pretty entrenched. And I think it is useful for conservatives and liberals to understand that they bring a totally different set of values to this thing.
It's an interesting message when a company as big as Shell or Exxon – "those hippies at Shell," I like to say – they believe in climate change, they have an internal carbon price. Shipping companies are looking at the Northwest Passage. On Wall Street, you don't get a lot of climate denial.
When people read this book, what do you hope they take away from it?
That the impacts are uneven in climate change, and insofar as they believe that the cause is also uneven, that they see those two things and how they interface and realize that those who've mostly caused the problem are mostly going to be best able to protect themselves. And they understand that nuance and see that as a moral issue.
That's very different than, some people are profiteering off climate change, you know, "those jerks!" These characters, who I spent a lot of time with and by and large liked a lot – I hope people see themselves in these people rather than villainize them.
I think just sort of understanding our own psychology, and that we fall back on a relatively distinct set of beliefs as we try to figure out what to do with problems is helpful. I personally believe in climate change and think it should be dealt with, but the immediate thing [from the book] isn't to galvanize action. It's more to step back and let people ruminate.
Learn more about McKenzie Funk and "Windfall" at his website.Follow @terrellwrites
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