Melting ice provides Greenland with an economic lifeline. Should it grab hold?
It seems to be a modern-day pilgrimage for those who fear global warming's impact: go to Greenland and witness the melting glaciers before they disappear.
If you're lucky, you can hover above the oft-lamented glaciers (in a carbon-emitting helicopter), ruing humanity's impact on the landscape.
Poor Greenland. It is often portrayed as a tragic, innocent victim of man-made climate change – one of the nations that, along with remote Pacific islands, will suffer the worst consequences of a warmer planet – all because of the greed of rich nations.
The ice will melt, and local hunters will have their way of life undermined.
There's another side to this story, though. This supposedly doomed nation just sought and gained more autonomy.
Greenland has been associated with Denmark since the 18th century, and has existed since 1979 under home rule. But in a ceremony in Nuuk a few weeks ago, Greenland shifted to self rule, and is on a slow path toward eventual autonomy.
This is not a case of the Kingdom of Denmark abandoning the world's largest island to melt. The inhabitants of Greenland voted for self-governance in a referendum last year.
What makes this nation, with 58,000 people and two traffic lights – and whose biggest import has been $NZ877 million in annual financial aid from Denmark – believe that it can cope all by itself?
The simple answer: the scientific consensus on global warming.
As Der Spiegel puts it, "while the world worries about climate change, [it] is triggering great hopes in Greenland."
The icecap covers 80 percent of Greenland. Melting ice will unlock trapped resources. There's gold, diamonds, coal, and zinc. And an estimated 110 billion tons of oil. That's a lot of oil.
As Greenland earns more, Denmark will decrease its aid. If oil revenues exceed 6.5 billion kroner (about NZ$1.9 billion a year), the aid can stop altogether, and Greenland can afford to become fully independent: a brand-new nation born out of climate change.
Hopefully, the money Greenland makes will be put to good use. (There is a precedent for this: sensible Norway got rich off oil, but didn't splurge).
In Greenland today, one in three children is reportedly a victim of domestic violence. Alcoholism is prevalent. Twenty percent of girls 15 to 17 years of age have attempted suicide, indeed a fifth of all young people have seriously thought about killing themselves. Up to 70 percent of all young people do not finish school or learn a profession.
There is serious social dysfunction in Greenland, and a stronger economy and social welfare system would surely diminish some of the problems.
But the prospect of oil riches poses some tough questions.
Greenland's potential reserves are enticing because, perversely but inevitably, heightened fear of climate change has encouraged a drive to tap new sources of petroleum, instead of encouraging research and development into green alternatives. Isn't that the big problem here?
Building just one proposed aluminium smelter would apparently double the carbon dioxide output of the entire country. Paying for carbon offsets would cost this fragile nation a fortune. So, should Greenland (which contributed next-to-nothing to the carbon emissions that caused the problem of global warming) be allowed to opt-out from the carbon reduction treaty that will be negotiated by world leaders in Copenhagen this December?
The Danish government – still responsible for Greenland's foreign policy – says no. But couldn't Greenland argue – as developing economies China and India do – that it's unfair to put it at such a disadvantage in its time of growth, given that today's rich countries developed without such hurdles?
Some even argue that we, the inhabitants of richer countries, should pay the likes of Greenland not to develop their oil wealth.
In Europe, Greenland pops up in the news in occasional stories about social problems, and when statesmen worry about global warming in front of the glaciers. Perhaps the famous visitors to Greenland's ice could start talking more with the locals about their expectations from global warming.