Activists in papier-mâché world leaders' heads flounder in the Arctic Ocean.

As world leaders gathered in New York for the UN Climate Summit and the Arctic’s disappearing sea ice simultaneously reached its annual minimum, activists dressed as heads of state in papier-mâché heads floundered in a life raft in the Arctic Ocean. Left to right: Barack Obama (US), Narendra Modi (India), Angela Merkel (Germany), Vladimir Putin (Russia), David Cameron (UK), Stephen Harper (Canada)  and François Hollande (France).
Photo © Christian Aslund / Greenpeace

Cold Rush

The race is on between exploitation and conservation in the Arctic.

The Arctic is melting as a result of global warming, with sea ice shrinking at an alarming rate. Within 30 years, the Arctic Ocean is projected to be virtually free of summer sea ice. This has led to a significant increase in marine traffic and the expectation of even larger increases in the future.

The Arctic is melting as a result of global warming, with sea ice shrinking at an alarming rate. Within 30 years, the Arctic Ocean is projected to be virtually free of summer sea ice. This has led to a significant increase in marine traffic and the expectation of even larger increases in the future. In October 2014, Canada’s environment commissioner, Julie Gelfand, released an annual audit, which this year included an assessment of the federal government’s ability to support safe marine transportation in the Canadian Arctic – and the results weren’t pretty. More marine traffic means increased risk of spills, accidents and other harmful impacts. Poorly managed Arctic transportation poses a significant threat to the region.

The audit found nautical charts and surveys of Canadian Arctic waters to be sorely inadequate, including those of higher-risk areas and many of the main traffic corridors. In fact, less than one per cent of Canadian Arctic waters have been surveyed to modern standards. Navigational aid systems, icebreaking services and pollution-monitoring tools all fell short. What’s more, the audit found “no long-term national vision or coordinated departmental strategies to support safe marine transportation in the Arctic.” The take-away message was that when it comes to marine transport, Canada is not ready for the changes underway in the Arctic, and if we don’t get our act together, it will put the region at risk.

The conclusion is dead-on and applies to more than just marine traffic. Canada’s current inability to support Arctic shipping is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the failures of Canadian Arctic policy.

Although the problems identified in the commissioner’s audit are certainly serious, perhaps Canada’s biggest failure in the Arctic is its refusal to seriously address the chief threat facing the region: climate change. The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the planet as a whole, causing rapid ice melt and putting people and wildlife at risk. Iconic species such as the narwhal, polar bear and walrus depend on sea ice for their habitat and hunting grounds, and as it disappears, their futures become increasingly uncertain. Arctic Indigenous peoples too depend on the ice and the wildlife it supports for their food, livelihood and culture. Whole villages in Alaska are being washed away as permafrost melts and coasts erode into the sea.

The melting Arctic threatens people outside the region as well. Arctic ice helps cool the planet, reflecting more incoming sunlight than the darker land and ocean uncovered when the ice disappears. Arctic permafrost sequesters massive quantities of carbon, but as permafrost melts, carbon is released into the atmosphere, resulting in further warming of the planet. As the ice melts, these critical climate-stabilizing services are degraded, the planet gets hotter, and the climate crisis spirals out of control.

The Arctic is on the front line of climate change, and what happens in the Arctic affects everyone on Earth. In the words of Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a prominent Inuit climate advocate and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, “Climate change is amplified in the Arctic. What is happening to us now will happen soon in the rest of the world. Our region is the globe’s climate change barometer. If you want to protect the planet, look to the Arctic and listen to what Inuit are saying.”

The Harper government hasn’t listened. From its 2011 withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, to early 2014, when Gelfand slammed the government for failing to produce climate regulations for the oil and gas sector, Canada has obstructed serious action on climate change. In 2012, when Arctic summer sea ice reached its lowest extent since satellite records began in 1979, the Harper government actually blocked federally employed scientists from reporting this fact to the media.

Drilling and spilling

If inaction on climate change is the biggest failure of Canada’s Arctic policy, promotion of far-offshore oil drilling is the most invidious. The Arctic Ocean is believed to have large quantities of oil and gas beneath it, and as with the tar sands, the Canadian government is keen to see these resources exploited. In the western Canadian Arctic, licenses have been granted by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada for exploratory drilling in the Beaufort Sea. To the east, the National Energy Board has approved seismic testing around Baffin Island. In the remote and harsh Arctic environment, getting at the oil is both difficult and expensive. But this region is now being prospected because conventional oil resources are dwindling and the melting ice is making the region more accessible to industry.

From a climate perspective, the idea is madness. Instead of recognizing the melting Arctic as an alarm call for the climate crisis, government and industry see it as an opportunity to dig up and burn more of the fossil fuels that are causing the crisis in the first place. According to the latest science, the majority of existing fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground if we’re to have a good chance of keeping global warming below 2∞ Celsius. If we can’t safely burn the fossil fuels we already have, why on earth are we going out exploring for more? If the world finally gets serious about climate change and takes appropriate action to cut emissions, oil demand is expected to drop to the point that most offshore Arctic oil will become unneeded and unprofitable. Responding to the climate threat and drilling for Arctic oil are simply not compatible objectives. If we pursue one, we must be prepared to give up on the other. Sadly, the Canadian government has decided to go after the oil.

Arctic oil drilling is hugely controversial for another reason: because of the remote and harsh Arctic environment, effective clean-up of a major spill is practically impossible. Given the fragile nature of the Arctic ecosystem, which is foundational to the mixed economies of northern Indigenous peoples, a major oil spill in the Arctic would be catastrophic. Even the oil industry itself has occasionally acknowledged some of the risks. Peter Slaiby, vice president of Shell in Alaska, said quite plainly in a 2012 BBC interview, “There will be spills.” In 2012, French oil giant Total announced that it would not participate in Arctic drilling because the risk of an oil spill was too great, and “a leak would do too much damage to the image of the company.”

We fear that what the Conservative government is doing is a cultural genocide and will end the Inuit way of life as we know it.
– Niore Iqalukjuak, Clyde River resident

The government’s plans have not gone unchallenged. In June 2014, the National Energy Board approved a proposal to conduct a five-year seismic testing survey off the coast of Baffin Island despite strong opposition from local Inuit communities. One of those communities, Clyde River, has launched a legal challenge to have the decision reversed. Seismic testing involves firing extremely powerful air guns underwater, and analyzing the pattern of sounds reflected off geological structures beneath the seafloor to identify potential petroleum reservoirs. The air guns are so loud that they can cause significant harm to marine life, including disruption of migration patterns, physical damage and death.

Clyde River and other Inuit communities are concerned that seismic testing and the drilling activity that would follow threaten their food security and cultural survival. Clyde River resident Niore Iqalukjuak has articulated the community’s concerns powerfully:

“It completely scares us – it’s the food of our people. That’s why Inuit are so adamant about trying to stop this…. We depend on these waters for food and the very existence of Inuit life depends on them. We fear that what the Conservative government is doing is a cultural genocide and will end the Inuit way of life as we know it.”

Greenpeace Arctic Sanctuary Map
The sanctuary idea has received support from the more than six million people who’ve signed Greenpeace’s petition at savethearctic.orgA list of prominent individuals and organizations calling for the creation of an Arctic sanctuary can be found at

The Sanctuary Solution

Canada can work to stop Arctic melting by taking strong action to fight climate change. This means the government must work toward cutting emissions by putting a price on carbon; investing in large-scale energy efficiency projects, renewable energy and mass public transportation; and supporting a fair, ambitious and binding global deal on climate change. This also means leaving Arctic oil in the ground, where the risk of spills is nil.

Furthermore, Canada should take action to protect all Arctic fish stocks from new commercial fisheries, uphold the highest safety standards in marine shipping, encourage economic development that supports rather than threatens subsistence activities and culture, and work internationally to ensure that similar efforts are pursued throughout the Arctic.

A wide range of individuals and civil-society organizations around the globe are calling for the creation of a sanctuary in the central Arctic Ocean to serve as the cornerstone of a new regional governance framework for Arctic protection. This Arctic Sanctuary would be a marine reserve covering the uninhabited region of the Arctic Ocean beyond the 200 nautical mile limit of Arctic coastal states’ Exclusive Economic Zones – which under international law is the usual limit of states’ rights over marine resources. The Arctic Sanctuary would be off-limits for extractive and destructive uses. There would be no fishing, no military activity, and no exploration for and extraction of hydrocarbon and mineral resources.

It’s an ambitious goal, but the legal route to creating such a sanctuary is actually quite straightforward. At any time, the Arctic states (Canada, US, Russia, Iceland, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Sweden and Finland), in collaboration with the international community, could create a binding multilateral agreement to control activities in the high seas of the Arctic Ocean and bring the sanctuary into being. This was the approach taken in creating the protected area covering Antarctica, and it could be applied again to create a sanctuary in the Arctic.

Sadly, most governments are more intent on exploiting the Arctic than protecting it. All five Arctic coastal states have made claims to portions of the would-be sanctuary, with Canada, Russia and Denmark all seeking to claim the North Pole. These efforts are driven by the quest for resources, oil and gas in particular, and the political points that could be scored with domestic audiences by the government that can say it won the North Pole.

The main barrier to the creation of the sanctuary, as for Arctic protection generally, is states’ pursuit of narrowly construed national self-interest, lack of political will and vested corporate interests. Though these forces are not easily beaten, we have it in our power to work together to overcome them. We have a vision and a path forward for how to protect the Arctic, we simply need to take action to make it a reality. So it falls to all of us to educate, organize and act to ensure this uniquely important region is protected, for the good of all life on Earth. 

See pictures of this fall’s chilly bike ride to save the Arctic and find out how you can throw your support behind a sanctuary.


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Alex Speers-Roesch is a long-time activist with a background in science. He currently works on the Greenpeace Arctic campaign.