Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Arctic Melt: The New Cold War

                                        This article was first published in King's Tribune.

   There isn't going to be a shooting war for Arctic resources just yet.

  Major powers like the the US, China and Russia are still waiting for the Arctic ice to hurry up and melt away. And that process is moving along at a pace that makes the average environmentalist want to sign yet another petition during Nat Geo Channel commercial breaks and bong hits. The Arctic is said to have up to 25% of the world’s oil and gas sitting like Inca gold under all that pesky ice and, with current global oil production maxed out and prices rising fast, the North Pole sure has the potential to be proxy resource war central in the increasingly tense 21st century.

  In 2007, the Russians planted a titanium flag on the seabed under the polar ice which was a pretty ballsy move ripped straight out of the 16th century when European powers had a habit of sailing to foreign shores and planting flags on valuable shit they didn’t own. That flag move was designed by Putin to tell Canada, the US, Denmark and Norway (who all claim a piece of the Arctic action) that the Russian claim theoretically extends all the way to the Pole. Naturally, this pissed off everyone and sets the stage for a Cold War Part II later on this century.

  Another fun thing about the melting ice is the profitable new shipping routes that are opening up. The famed “Northeast Passage” is a handy shortcut from Europe to Asia that bypasses the Suez Canal and becomes ice-free every summer. Lately, that shipping lane along the northern Russian coast is becoming increasingly viable even in winter. The Russians like this because it would mean cheaper export routes for Russian oil tankers to burgeoning energy hungry soon-to-be superpower, China. The Russians recently exported 60,000 tons of oil products to China via northern Siberia on the vessel, Perseverance. A trial voyage for sure, but a whole lot cheaper than building a pipeline to China.

  Meanwhile, the US is engaged in proxy resource war in Middle East deserts and sniffing at regime change in Iran and the opening of the third largest oil field on the planet to sleazy Western oil companies. The Russians and Chinese are playing a longer game here on the global energy chessboard. While blocking concerted action at the UN against Iran and Syria (stymying Western attempts at energy field access in Persia), they see a future multi polar world of more balanced rival powers (as the US loses it singular super power perch) and the ending of US hegemony on global energy supply.

  This sure is an interesting time if you’re interested in how the 21st century will play out.

  The retreating Arctic ice shelf is putting a smaller and much ignored part of the planet into the global spotlight. Ground zero for global resource scrambles in the Arctic right now is Greenland. Nominally a Danish ‘protectorate’ (code speak for Copenhagen owns all your shit), the US has been floating the idea of ‘independence’ for that Euro centric island. This would be handy for US oil and mining corporations to skirt pesky European environmental laws that say you have to clean up the mess after you’re done strip mining. Preliminary reports from the soggy permafrost in Greenland reveal uranium, diamonds, gold and rare earth metals packed under the retreating glaciers and those rare earths are in high demand too since 90% of existing supply comes from a single mine in China. Those rare earths get crammed into plasma TVs and i-Pads and the Chinese have been restricting exports, which are subtle opening salvos in the proxy resource wars that will dominate the 21st century.

  The Greenlanders recently retracted laws governing the digging up of radioactive elements on their soil and decided spilling gamma waves into igloos for cash was a deal they could live with. This has attracted the usual swarm of sleazy corporations looking for mining rights. Fun thing is, these corps represent US, Russian and Chinese mining interests with a host of smaller countries like Canada, Australia, Norway and Finland looking for a piece of the action too. Everyone wants access to the last  non-raped piece of real estate on the planet. Sure, the polar bears won’t like it but let’s face it; polar bears are assholes. They'll just have to make do with shitty zoo swimming pools and dancing for fat fucks on cellphone vids.

   Will there be shooting over these resources anytime soon?


   Climate change still has some work to do to melt away those last bits of polar habitat that'll make the region viable for free-for-all energy and commodity extraction. But if we fast-forward to say 2020, shit starts to get interesting. By then, it'll have fully sunken in to us dumb upright apes that economic growth on a planet is finite and tied to energy supply. Nobody's going to be particularly happy about this. Especially in rich countries where we will get to learn the hard way that the plastic bottle that contains the Coca Cola is actually worth more in real terms than the shitty sugar water inside. When that truth comes down the pipe, along with $200 barrel oil, food price increases and shittier lives, it's going to be somebody's fault. In Western countries, that'll probably mean the Chinese and Russians.

   That's where the seeds of future resource wars will get sown.

   Wars always start with angry people. People who get angry blowing their paychecks on fuel and food and not having enough left over for a new plasma screen. This has been going on ever since some hunter-gatherer tribe killed the last mammoth in the valley and pissed off all the other tribes who also needed new fur coats too. Truth is, despite the dystopian sci fi consumertopia we're all living in today, not too much has changed. We've got satellites and i-phones but we're still dumb upright apes when it comes to killing people who try to take our shit. Killing each other for resources is a proven strategy and civilization is just a thin veneer pasted on top of four million years of naked raw survival. When lower living standards peel that veneer away, shit will get interesting fast. And by interesting I mean war. Thing is, future resource wars are going to go global fast because every tribe is going to want a piece of the last mammoth left in the valley.

   Will the Arctic be worth fighting over?


   The Russians have already started beefing up their Northern Fleet and, I shit you not, have begun building a prototype floating nuclear power station to power undersea drilling. That’s sure to make environmentalists shit bricks. The Norwegians just inked a deal with the US for 52 new F-35 multi role stealth fighters which is a $10.5 billion order and gigantic when you consider Norway’s tiny population. It reeks of a ballsy ambition to stake a claim for some Polar resources but then that’s typical of the Nordics. If the shooting ever starts they’ll be looking at a Finn style rerun of the Winter War in 1939 when the tiny Finns bloodied the Red Army’s nose.

   The Canadians too are gearing up for some possible pew-pew.

   In October, the Canadian Navy announced a $25 billion order for 23 new combat vessels of various types aimed at patrolling the Northwest passage, shipping lanes in the Canadian Arctic that are opening up to maritime trade again due to melting ice. Canada has been running Arctic military exercises every year since 2006 (Operation Nanook) designed to warn the Russkis to keep their filthy titanium flags off Canada’s sea floor.

   The US of course is well positioned to defend any Arctic claim. In addition to a defense budget larger than the next ten countries combined, the US has 50 nuclear attack subs that have been lurking under the Arctic ice for decades and it’s hard to see them being over whelmed in any future resource war.

   But here’s where we come to the fun part.

   In an increasingly nuclear-armed world, are limited resource wars even possible without escalating to full on WWIII take-us-back-to-the-Stone Age action? That sure is an interesting question for the 21st century and the fun thing about nukes themselves. They're really only useful when they never get used. In fact, nukes are the greatest peace keeping weapons ever invented.

   Global power since WWII has been primarily economic and “soft”. Having aircraft carriers and stealth bombers is useful but not game winning when you consider that once a nuclear armed power starts losing a conventional war it’s time to press the big red button of win and sort out WWIV with sticks and stones. Nukes were the mutually assured destruction glue that kept the Cold War from ever turning into a shooting contest. The US and Russia fought through proxies and kept warfare on the down low. But will this paradigm endure once oil production peaks and prices increase to the point where the era of cheap energy ends?

   Right now nukes mean there can be no winner and that has made leaders realize that it is better to trade than conquer. Global communication means there are no ideological divisions right now; every nation is money grabbing capitalist pig and that works pretty well for everything but the planet. As planet conditions change and make human populations more costly to sustain, it sure raises some interesting questions.

  Do we get to stage where desperation creeps in?

  Sometime later this century, a major power may have to make a move on some energy, water, or sea lane because failing to do so would result in a collapse of the state anyway; so war and nuke escalation events further down the road are not impossible the way they are now. Resource shortages later this century are the type of things that result in paradigm shifts. Sure, China right now is happy exporting plastic shit, Russia is having a lulz fest squeezing European natural gas supply and the Americans are having a field day running around ME deserts securing future oil supply. But this kind of status quo has a sell by date and that's coming pretty damn soon.

   It's a scary recipe for the future. In fact, it’s so scary I think I’ll go sign some useless petitions and take a bong hit.