A textbook example of an Arctic conference out of sync

Few would doubt that climate change exists and that it is man-made. Why then is Big Oil allowed to steal the show at one of the Arctic’s most important events?

This week scientists, NGOs and ministers from as far away from Singapore gathered in northern Norway at the high-level conference Arctic Frontiers. Sadly, it turned out to be a textbook example of everything a prestigious Arctic-themed conference should not be.

What it should be is a forum for constructive talks on the challenges ahead of us. A place where in-depth, honest discussions on issues such as Arctic oil, indigenous rights, climate change in the North and sustainable development were at the height of the agenda.

Instead what could be witnessed was a manifestation of a new form of climate denial, where everyone agrees on the urgency, while at the same time way too many are praising a continuous race down a dead-end road. Ancient approaches were certainly invited to the table, so to speak. And unfortunately, they did not meet much opposition.

Floating ice and icebergs off the coast of West-Greenland. 08/20/2009 © aFloating ice and icebergs off the coast of West-Greenland. © Markus Mauthe / GreenpeaceMarkus Mauthe / Greenpeace

2014 was the warmest year on record so far and climate change is accelerating at a pace more rapid than anybody could have foreseen just a decade ago. Most of the presenters acknowledged this unprecedented risk. The exact same people, however, did not recognise the gravity and logical consequences of what they themselves said. There was hardly any recognition of the discrepancy between the current open-door policy for Big Oil to carve up the Arctic and the reality of climate change.

It is a fact that if we are to limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures, we have already found significantly more fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas than we can allow ourselves to burn. According to the latest research, this reality also sets in stone that Arctic oil drilling is a complete no-go.

Instead of discussing how much oil we can get from new, fragile areas such as the Arctic, we should be discussing how we can move beyond fossil fuels and yet still ensure development for those who need it. This was not the case in Tromsø. Instead, politicians and oil companies were falling over each other to express excitement over the new “opportunities” the Arctic provides. And, yes, the Arctic holds plenty of opportunities, but oil extraction must not be one of them. It is not something either the Arctic or the global community can afford.

There was a hopeful period around the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, where some of the oil companies such as BP seemed like they understood the gravity of the situation and were ready to be a positive force in the needed transition beyond fossils. This week’s Arctic Frontiers conference clearly showed that this was a short-lived hope. Oil companies such as ConocoPhilips and Statoil, who have built their exorbitant fortunes by destroying our planet, all had the same message: Drill, baby, drill!

The Leiv Eiriksson off the coast of Greenland. 05/25/2011 © Steve Morgan / Greenpeace

It cannot surprise anyone that oil companies aren’t able to change their ways, but how they can be allowed so much room at venues such as the conference (Big Oil had more of a presence than NGOs and indigenous-peoples groups combined) – and why politicians (and even some scientists) act as headless chickens in their vocal or silent agreement with Big Oil – is beyond me.

And this is what seems to be at the very core of this new stage of climate denial. Almost everybody recognises that climate change exists and is man-made. Almost everybody agrees that we in principle should keep the temperature rise to 2 degrees. However, oil companies (and some politicians) in the same sentence somehow argue for the sanity of drilling for more and more oil.

Politicians and organisers can continue to let Big Oil keep clouding our minds, trying to seal the lid on some much-needed discussions, or they can choose to move into the next phase of combating climate change. If these conferences are going to regain their relevance, they need to be more than just an opportunity for corridor talk. They need to be as brave and as bold as the situation demands and refuse to be reduced to a poster-child for Big Oil.

Jon Burgwald on the Esperanza. 08/25/2010 © Will Rose / GreenpeaceJon Burgwald is an Arctic Campaigner with Greenpeace Nordic.

This blog originally appeared as an op-ed on The Arctic Journal.

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