Global warming is good for Russia

SOME consequences of global warming are unambiguously bad. Rising sea levels can’t do anybody any good. Nor can higher temperatures in hotter bits of the world. But the warming of the Arctic is not quite so clear-cut. Most people fear it, but some may see reason to welcome it.

Temperatures in the Arctic are rising roughly twice as fast as the global average. Arctic sea-ice is melting away at a rate of around 9% a decade. It used to be thought that there would be no sea-ice in summer months by 2060. Newer calculations have brought that date forward to 2040.

This is bad for local wildlife. All over the world, species are edging towards the poles as their habitats change. But Arctic and Antarctic creatures have nowhere colder to go. Pity the polar bears. They depend on sea-ice to hunt seals. The less sea-ice there is, the fewer seals there are to eat. That, presumably, is why the only long-term study of a polar-bear population, from Hudson Bay, in Manitoba in Canada, suggests that the average bear is 15% thinner than he was 30 years ago.

Rising polar temperatures also mean bad news for many human beings—notably the 150,000 Inuit of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia. Frozen ground is turning mushy, making it hard for hunters to travel. Mosquito infestations have driven their main quarry, caribou, into the hills. According to Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), children swim in the river that flows by her birthplace, and wander around in shorts in the summer. That would have been inconceivable when she was small.

Perhaps that doesn’t sound too bad. But Ms Watt-Cloutier does not like it. “We are defending our right to be cold”, she says. She has filed a petition on behalf of the ICC with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, accusing America of breaching the Inuit’s human rights by virtue of its contribution to climate change.

But others will clearly benefit. The shipping industry will be able to use new short-cuts along the north coast of North America and the north coast of Russia. A newly navigable Arctic could cut thousands of miles off the journey between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

The biggest beneficiary is likely to be Russia itself, which encircles almost half the Arctic Ocean. Currently uninhabitable areas will become more hospitable; currently inaccessible energy resources will become more exploitable.

According to the United States Geological Service, about one-quarter of the world’s undiscovered energy reserves may be in the Arctic. Earlier this year Russia announced a project to exploit the world’s biggest offshore gas field, Shtokman, 300 miles off its northern coast. Russia had been expected to pick partners from among the world’s big energy companies, but instead it let Gazprom, its energy giant, go it alone.

Russia has claimed half the Arctic Ocean, including the North Pole, as its territory. It submitted the claim under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but had it rejected. The convention decrees that who owns what is determined partly by the extent of a country’s continental shelf, and Russia did not have enough geological data to back up its claim. Russia is now mapping energetically, as are America, Canada, Denmark and Norway, which also border the Arctic Ocean.

However the sea is divided up, warming is likely to make Russia richer rather than poorer. Which may help explain the reluctance of some Russian members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body charged by the UN with establishing the facts on climate change, to accept that global warming is a problem that needs to be dealt with.

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