Monday, July 16, 2007

Sunny Greenland

Sunday's Washington Post was jammed with information on climate change, starting with a front-page article summarizing the policy challenges for the US government. It also included an interesting set of charts on the sources of our emissions, the shift in global emissions from developed to developing countries, and some options for managing them. Since I see this sort of thing all the time, I was more intrigued by the special travel section of the Post. "Climate is transforming many of the world's most striking tourist destinations," it said. "If you want to see them, better go soon." Climate change may be creating new opportunities for tourism, but in the case of Greenland and other presently chilly locales, it could also open up new frontiers.

One of the conclusions you should take away from the Post's coverage is that even after the US enacts tough restrictions on future emissions--no easy task--and convinces other large emitters to follow suit, a significant amount of further warming is almost inevitable. Stabilizing emissions at twice their pre-industrial level would not return the climate to its pre-industrial conditions, or even to where it was 20 or 30 years ago. Because of the long residence times of the various greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, significant change is baked in, perhaps as much as 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, and that is going to transform the landscape. Some of those changes will present enormous difficulties for rich and poor populations alike, but some of them may create new opportunities, particularly in places like Greenland.

The travel section described how Greenland was settled by Vikings during a previous warming phase, the "Medieval Warm Period" (MWP) and then partly abandoned after the onset of the "Little Ice Age." There is much debate about whether the MWP was warmer or cooler than current conditions. Either way, it looks like we're going to see a much warmer Greenland in our lifetimes, opening up tremendous swaths of new territory for development. It will no longer be a matter of mere trivia that an island three times larger than Texas is a territory of tiny Denmark, and thus a big chunk of the European Union lies only a few hours flying time from New York. Whatever mineral wealth has been locked up under its permafrost may soon become accessible. And while environmentalists may bridle at that prospect, companies and investors will see the chance for profits. On a more basic level, people dislocated by political, religious and even climate events may see an opportunity for a new start in a new land.

Don't mistake this for the "cup half full" thinking of those who would like to see more global warming. But just as we can't ignore the impending negative consequences of further warming in the form of droughts, shoreline erosion, and shrinking biodiversity, we shouldn't close our eyes to the possibility that some very thinly populated areas, including Alaska, might become more attractive. Siberia has about 3 people per square kilometer; China has 136. As the former thaws, it's hard to imagine that cross-border migration pressure wouldn't increase. As demonstrated by the current US debate over immigration, it will be much easier to address the challenges caused by such shifts while they are still small. Likewise for issues of resource access and navigation rights. I'm not optimistic that these will attract much attention, as long as we are focused on bigger geopolitical problems, so we will probably end up dealing with them ad hoc, as with so many other issues.

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