Annals of the Great Not-So-White North: the coming Nuuk-lear arms race

It sounds like an insider joke: the Revenge of the Obamanauts. Hillary Clinton has been dispatched on an urgent mission … to Greenland. Goodbye, Hillary. Hope you can find a nice walrus-hide pantsuit. But Secretary Clinton’s trip to Greenland’s capital city of Nuuk on Thursday to attend a meeting of the Arctic Council is far ...

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

It sounds like an insider joke: the Revenge of the Obamanauts. Hillary Clinton has been dispatched on an urgent mission … to Greenland. Goodbye, Hillary. Hope you can find a nice walrus-hide pantsuit.

But Secretary Clinton's trip to Greenland's capital city of Nuuk on Thursday to attend a meeting of the Arctic Council is far from an effort to lower the secretary of state's profile. What is being discussed by the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark at the round-table discussion are issues that may be among the most important and least well understood of the decades ahead.

It is currently estimated that perhaps a quarter of the world's untapped oil and gas reserves lie within the Arctic Circle. In a world of scarce resources, growing demand, and an increasing capability to actually tap into those hitherto unreachable fields, that would be enough to make the Nuuk meetings and the Arctic Council process increasingly important.

It sounds like an insider joke: the Revenge of the Obamanauts. Hillary Clinton has been dispatched on an urgent mission … to Greenland. Goodbye, Hillary. Hope you can find a nice walrus-hide pantsuit.

But Secretary Clinton’s trip to Greenland’s capital city of Nuuk on Thursday to attend a meeting of the Arctic Council is far from an effort to lower the secretary of state’s profile. What is being discussed by the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark at the round-table discussion are issues that may be among the most important and least well understood of the decades ahead.

It is currently estimated that perhaps a quarter of the world’s untapped oil and gas reserves lie within the Arctic Circle. In a world of scarce resources, growing demand, and an increasing capability to actually tap into those hitherto unreachable fields, that would be enough to make the Nuuk meetings and the Arctic Council process increasingly important.

But the Arctic is also the likely site of significant new sources of many vital minerals, of fisheries, and, as importantly, it is ground zero for a potential climatic transformation that could have profound consequences for the planet. Someday historians might look back at the period in which we live and laugh a sad laugh about how we were obsessed with contained temporal threats like terror while flashing brightly on the computers of scientists everywhere were bright warnings that the global environment was undergoing the most profound changes it has experienced since the dawn of human history — changes that would literally erase countries, transform the global economy, create famines, force hundreds of millions from their homes, and send like numbers into poverty. The study announced a week ago by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program makes warnings like those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change look positively giddy by comparison. It suggests that average global sea level could rise by as much as five feet during the remainder of this century.

Much of that increase in sea-level rise over prior studies’ is due to past underestimating of the speed and scope of Arctic ice melting. The AMAP study concluded that within just over a generation, the Arctic Ocean will be almost ice-free during the summertime. That means easier energy and mineral exploration, the creation of important new shipping lanes, and very different climates creating a variety of new opportunities for countries in Arctic regions.

All this means greater competition for the Arctic with real pushing and shoving and potential for growing tensions among key players including the Russians, Northern Europeans, and even the Chinese who want to be involved despite their lack of clear claims on the region. It also means that the once seemingly arcane decisions about things like shipping lanes and search-and-rescue protocols (which are being addressed in a treaty to be signed in Nuuk) are becoming much more fraught and central to the strategic interests of many of the world’s major powers.

That is why sending Secretary Clinton to Greenland to be the first U.S. secretary of state to attend an Arctic Council meeting is anything but a punishment. In fact, given the issues involved and their growing centrality to global affairs … plus the presence of other key players from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar … in symbolic terms alone the gathering in Nuuk could end up being the most important visit to Greenland made since a Viking named Gunnbjörn was blown off course and arrived there in the year 930.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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