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Kumi Naidoo Boards The Leiv Eiriksson
© Cobbing/Greenpeace

Arctic action

At global warming’s final frontier, the battle lines are melting

Activism Now! is Dazed staff writer Karen Orton’s monthly profile of the activists, global citizens and civil disobedients fighting for a better world. 

When London-based activist Joss Garman speaks about his research trip to the North Pole on the Greenpeace ship “Arctic Sunrise”, you can tell it left an indelible impression. “When you’re standing on the ice in the Arctic, all you can see for miles is water, ice and sea birds,” says the 27-year-old, who is Greenpeace’s acting political director. “Even if you never actually go to the Arctic, it’s the commons of the imagination. It’s the place we all read about in storybooks when we’re young. It is Narnia! Coming back was like walking into a different universe. But people in cities are all dependent on the Arctic. We’re all living on the edge of the ice, it’s not just the Inuit and the polar bears.”

For a growing number of activists, the Arctic is the frontline for global warming. The true magnitude of climate change’s impact hit home this year, with the unprecedented melting of the Arctic sea ice, which hit a record low in September. A shocking 97% was melting at one point – faster then any scientific models have predicted. It’s pointing to the possibility of an ice free Arctic by 2020, and Garman points out, rather bleakly, “if the sea ice disappears, some scientists say that it’s in a ‘death spiral’ – which means it will never recover.” Now that the Arctic’s vast oil and gas fields (estimated to contain more than 20 per cent of the world’s reserves) are increasingly within reach because of retreating ice, corporations and governments are clambering to stake a claim.

A global outcry greeted Shell’s exploratory oil expedition in Alaskan waters this autumn, Maggie James was one of the young activists who took part in the Climate Justice Collective’s protest. The group blockaded the entrance to Shell’s London headquarters by building an igloo made from giant blocks of ice. “We wanted to bring home both the unsung tragedy of the collapse of the ice sheet, but also make clear that there are companies who bear a lot of the responsibility for climate change, and that the same companies, especially Shell, are set to profit from drilling in the Arctic,” James explains.

While Shell’s initial attempt this year was thwarted by a giant marauding iceberg, the energy company plans to go ahead with Arctic drilling next summer. A few campaigners are not taking this lying down. Greenpeace’s protest actions over the last year shut down oil-rigs, ships and icebreakers while landing a number of activists in jail. Protesters recently boarded and locked themselves to the mast of a Shell icebreaker in Finland that was headed for the Arctic, while off the coast of Greenland, activists sped past Danish commandos to scale oil rigs where they prevented drilling by dangling inside the rig in tents which were hung by ropes. Activists also boarded a Shell drilling ship and stopped it from leaving New Zealand for the Arctic, while in the waters off northern Russia, several protestors in inflatable boats tried to prevent Gazprom staff from reaching a drilling platform, ending up in the freezing sea when their boats were overturned by oil rig workers. Last year Kumi Naidoo, the global head of Greenpeace, scaled the ladder of an Arctic oil rig while being blasted by freezing water cannons – he made it to the top only to be immediately arrested. You can’t say they’re not dedicated.

There is a mini-flurry of documentary responses to the threat, too. The acclaimed new documentary Chasing Ice follows photographer James Balog’s race to chronicle Arctic glaciers through time-lapse footage as they disappear before his camera lens. Balog is a former climate change skeptic turned activist, and it’s hard to imagine the most hardened global warming naysayer not being affected by the film. Award-winning photographer, activist and writer Subhankar Banerjee’s recent book Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point draws on his experience fighting for indigenous human rights in the North American and Siberian Arctic, where native populations have opposed oil drilling, also to no avail. In a recent interview for Democracy Now! Banerjee reflected on the recent shocking melt in Greenland. “The Arctic is telling us something,” he stated simply. “So far, the big oil and clean coal is winning… Is this the path we want to take? That’s the question as a society, both as a moral question as well as a practical question, that we have to respond to.”

In 2014, a panel will decide who owns the North Pole, and Greenpeace is launching a campaign to create a treaty to claim the area for humanity. Garman thinks that the primary responsibility lies with young people. “We’re the last generation that can sort these problems out. People are joining the dots and seeing that with both the financial and ecological mess, it’s the same major corporations to blame and the politicians who are cowering to them instead of looking after the next generation.” Garman has a young child, which is another reason he won’t be selling out anytime soon. “By the time my son goes to university, if he went to the Arctic it could just be open water,” Garman reflects. “He wouldn’t see polar bears wandering around and seals swimming next to him. When I go to the Arctic, it reminds me why I do what I do. It definitely makes me feel like I’m in a race against time.”