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Race to the Top of the World!


McKenzie Funk, “Cold Rush: The Coming Fight for the Melting North,” Harper’s, Sept. 2007

Over the last couple of years, I’ve found myself up north of the forty-fourth parallel several times—a meeting with oil executives in Edmonton, a conference in Toronto, a professional gathering in Vancouver. I always take a bit of time to listen in to the news on the radio and TV, and to pick up a paper or two. The Canadian press is remarkably sane and stable, particularly compared to the more hot-headed territory to the south. And generally, there is a sort of unflappable quality to the Canadians. They’re proud of being decent, good-humored and, well, bland. But on each of my recent visits, I have picked up a bit of anxiety about relations with the great neighbor in whose shadow they live. There are stories about U.S. missile systems which operate assuming control of Canadian airspace, and then, even more menacing, there is the Northwest Passage.

When I first heard this, I thought at once of some of the ill-fated arctic expeditions from the Age of Exploration. But when I listened more closely, I realized this was not a history program: it was a current dilemma, and it reflected a looming conflict involving Canada, a less-than-good-neighborly United States, Russia and Denmark among other nations. The Canadians were worked up about it. And they were worked up by the fact that the Americans were indifferent to their concerns. “What sort of allies are these?” was the implicit refrain.

There has been remarkably little reporting and writing on this subject in U.S. media, which is strange, because it’s quite a big deal, and not just to the Canadians. But the September Harper’s will be out in a few days, and it contains the first major essay to be published on this topic. It’s quite a piece. I fell in love with it immediately.

Consider this opener, which reads like it could be from a Jules Verne novel:

On the first full day of the sovereignty operation, the captain slowed the frigate and we took out the machine guns and sprayed the Northwest Passage with bullets. It felt pretty good. It was foggy, and the unpolluted water boiled as we polluted it with lead. There was no life we could see, and few waves. The wind was cold, the Arctic Ocean a drab green. There wasn’t any ice. But if there had been ice, we would have shot it.

This story, and the sudden focus of national interest at the top of the world, is driven by global warming. What was once a frigid wasteland is suddenly emerging as a region of commercial and military importance. And hence the question of territorial waters—whether the Northwest Passage is a part of Canada, or an international body of water—is question that will determine future fortunes. The changes are amazing, and Funk has amassed an impressive catalogue:

This was the year that drought crazed camels rampaged through a village in Australia, a manatee swam past Chelsea Piers in New York City’s Hudson River, and the Netherlands announced that its famous Elfstedentocht ice-skating race might have to be postponed forever. Armadillos reached northeast Arkansas. Wolves ate dogs in Alaska. Fire consumed 50 million acres of Siberia. Greenland lost a hundred gigatons of ice. The Inuit got air-conditioning units. The polar bear lurched toward the endangered-species list. India’s Ghoramara Island was mostly lost to the Bay of Bengal, Papua New Guinea’s Malasiga village was mostly lost to the Solomon Sea, and Alaska’s Shishmaref village decided to evacuate before being lost to the Chukchi Sea. Canadian scientists reported that the forty-square-mile Ayles ice shelf had broken off Ellesmere Island and formed a rapidly melting island of its own. A European satellite showed a temporary crack in the ice pack leading from northern Russia all the way to the North Pole.

Funk forgot the stranded polar bears found on ice drifts, but then they do make their way on to the occasional AP photograph. He does a good job of portraying the nervous concern that Canadians attach to American aspirations. At the center of his account is an interview with Michael Byers, a well-respected scholar in the law of armed conflict and international law field, who gave up a professorship at Duke to return to Canada.

“We are talking about 300 million people with the world’s largest military and with a desperate need for water,” he said, “and to some degree the constraints of international law will fade into the background. But luckily water conservation is much cheaper than enormous engineering projects. They’ll find it hard to justify the expense.”

Byers made elements of this point convincingly in his 2005 book War Law, which I consider to be the best short modern treatment of this subject matter. And the ultimate threat that Canada faces is the same faced around the world by small states that subsist on the periphery of a great power: the risk that they will simply become satellites, dependent on decisions made by the great power, but without the ability to influence them in any way. Is it a realistic concern?

A month after visiting Michael Byers’s class, I decided to travel to Washington, D.C., to see what Canada was so afraid of. I found a capital that was awakening to the security risks posed by global warming, and also awakening, perhaps, to the idea that northern riches could be ours—yet barely connecting the dots between the two. No one really seemed to think that Canada would get in our way. No one really seemed to think that it would come to blows. No one really seemed to think about Canada at all.

That last line says it all, I think. Yes, Byers’s concerns are very well placed. But the issue is not limited to the United States and Canada. Funk describes an almost comical game played by the Canadians and the Danes in which they plant their flags on a barren island that lies between Ellesmere Island and Greenland, claimed by both nations. But the other far more consequential player is and has long been Russia, which has always reckoned itself an Arctic power:

In late June, Russia’s Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper printed a large map showing a Russian flag flying over the North Pole and a supposed new addition to the nation’s territorial holdings: 460,000 square miles of Arctic Ocean. Russia’s first Article 76 claim to the pole, in 2001, was rejected for lack of data, but a team of scientists had returned from a six-week expedition by nuclear icebreaker saying that they had gotten what they needed. The 1,100-mile-long Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range that bisects the Arctic—along with the region’s 10 billion tons of gas and oil reserves—would be Russia’s, they said. Although the United Nations has yet to evaluate the claim, Russia celebrated.

Funk leaves the story with two members of the Canadian crew he is traveling with out on the tundra:

The two youngest Vandoos [members of the 22nd Regiment]—a sixteen-year-old and a seventeen-year old—had been given the first watch. I saw one take out his video camera and start walking around the tundra, filming very little. His partner sat facing the Northwest Passage, raising his rifle and pointing it into space, then lowering it, then raising it, then lowering it.

The image is perfect, reminding us that this story is far from having run its course. At this point we have very little sense even of how it will progress. We live in an ever-changing world whose changes introduce new opportunities and dangers. Nowhere today are the transformations quite so dramatic as at the top of the world. But Funk’s voyage to this former wasteland had paid off; he has given us a chance to see the sights on the cheap.

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