Supertankers to Ply the Great White Slushie
by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice
Global warming has triggered an array of environmental feedback loops, such as one starting with the melting of permafrost, which exposes frozen bogs, unleashing ancient methane—a greenhouse gas with 20 times the climate impact of carbon dioxide—whose subsequent increase in the atmosphere accelerates warming, causing more permafrost to melt, exposing more bogs, releasing more methane.
While the speed at which some of these environmental loops have kicked in has caught scientists by surprise, predictions of their emergence has long been central to climate science. Less predictable, however, are the insane human behavior feedback loops, where the warming climate triggers a self-destructive pathological greed within corporate culture, ultimately driving humans to find new ways to accelerate climate destruction, and ultimately, the destruction of their own societies.
If you want to be shocked by the speed at which global warming is changing the earth, just look north to the melting Arctic. The idea of the North Pole as a watery destination in the middle of a newly thawed ocean is fast becoming a reality, while hurricane flooding of coastal American cities is giving us a preview of what our future will look like once a liquefied arctic is set loose on the world's oceans. Rational minds might recoil in horror. For the corporate mind, however, every catastrophe presents an opportunity for profit. And the corporation, by design and charter, is a rapacious sociopath existing only to extract wealth from social and ecological environments. Corporations look to the melting north and they see money.
Global warming is rewriting the maps of the seas, with the most radical new map being at the top of the globe, where an ancient world of ice is quickly being transformed into a salty, vanilla-looking slushie. Last summe'’s unprecedented Arctic melt left the Arctic Ocean with just half the ice cover that we saw as recently as the 1980s and 1990s. The new arctic map shows an ocean, complete with shipping lanes, bordering the US, Russia, Canada, Norway, and Greenland, where every shore in this circular sea looks north.
As has historically been the case with all new trade route maps, there's international bickering. The US is claiming a right to ply the new "international waters," but maps have traditionally shown this ocean as a solid, normally associated with national land masses. The Russians are claiming control of their former ice mass, while the US and Canada are still hashing out who controls what, when frozen, was once Canada.
Entering this strange new world are the new global economic powerhouses. As our northern summer winds down, a Korean oil tanker is now heading from Korea toward Rotterdam, shaving 4,370 miles off its normal 13,670-mile route, which had run south of India and up through the Suez Canal, by charting a new course north of Russia and Alaska. Hyundai's shipping subsidiary, Hyundai Glovis, plans regular shipping on this route.
Also seaborne is a Chinese merchant ship, the Yong Sheng, loaded with heavy equipment and steel, following the same path from China into the North Atlantic, via the great white slushie. Both Korea and China are deferring to Russian authority in what is becoming known as the Northeast Passage. This was a simple business decision. Bickering over who gets to control the sea lanes would hold up "progress" for a decade or more. Somebody has to run the ice-breakers and control the traffic. It might as well be the Russians, since they they’re already there running the franchise. Profit before war.
The new route links energy-hungry China to both its largest market, Europe, and to Russian oil and gas reserves. This is a double climate feedback loop, both exposing more carbon and methane reserves for transformation into greenhouse gasses and making it easier and cheaper to move inexpensive trinkets from China to European and eastern North American markets. The fuel saved with the shorter route will be offset by the increased extraction of cheaper-to-move Arctic oil and gas, and by the increased consumer demand for easier-to-ship junk made with fossil-fired electricity.
The new route does pose what the business press refers to as "risks." Currently there are few ports and fewer facilities capable of repairing large ships in the Arctic, leaving no real plan for dealing with storm- or ice-damaged ships, as well as mechanical breakdowns or on-board fires. In corporate calculus, however, "risk" is just an economic variable, like the tens of thousands of shipping containers that topple into the ocean each year. As with rotting produce in a supermarket, the profit equation accounts for spoilage and loss. And as with the containers of computers and smartphones and pesticides that poison our oceans, the only cost that makes its way onto the balance sheets is the economic cost of the lost ship or cargo, not the much greater and much longer-lasting environmental costs.
This is the same magic math that floats the nuclear power industry. Profit is privatized, but risk is socialized. Since before the industrial revolution, the dumping of poisons into the commons has been a massive wealth transfer not just from the masses to the wealthy owners of polluting industries, but from future generations to this generation's eco-criminals. Hence it should come as no surprise that when investors talk about the risks of Arctic shipping, the conversation ends with a calculation, never embarking on a discussion about the risks to global ocean ecosystems and the animals and people whose health depends upon them. We don't know how to clean up an oil spill in the great white slushie. All we know how to do is, in the worst case, fold up a corporation and protect its investors from liability associated with the corporation's depraved indifference to earthly life.
Since 2009, commercial shipping in the Arctic has increased by a factor of 10. Currently this amounts to about 10 commercial ships per year, increasing to about 55 next year. Russia and Korea have big plans to deploy fleets of ice-breakers to aid commercial shipping, while shipyards in India and Korea are gearing up to build ice-fortified tankers and cargo ships.
Most of the information I've seen on the coming Arctic shipping boom comes from the business press, which for the most part looks at the melting Arctic not as the latest event in an ongoing global environmental catastrophe, but instead simply as an investment opportunity. Get in, make some quick money, and spend it while you still can. Maybe buy a chateau on the moon. It's no different than driving by a burning house and placing your first call to your broker to invest in fire trucks. Seeing the melting Arctic as an investment opportunity is symptomatic of a threat even more serious, perhaps, than global warming.
This story first appeared Sept. 5 in ArtVoice, Buffalo, NY
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
Image from the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection
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