Oh! What a Lovely Climate Change:
Global Warming's Winners and Losers

Michael H. Glantz
21 August
2007

Oh! What a Lovely Climate Change: Global Warming's Winners and Losers

 

You just have to love it. Here we are in the midst of a rapidly changing atmosphere (thanks to human activities that produce heat-trapping greenhouse gases), with dire consequences becoming more dire by the month. Meanwhile, some people, corporations, and governments are jockeying around for the best advantageous economic position in a warming global climate regime.

The analogy that comes to mind would be a hypothetical situation involving the fateful demise of the ocean liner, the Titanic. For example, the word is out that the ship has been hit by an iceberg and is at an increased risk of sinking, sliding slowly into the coldest waters on the planet. Lifeboats are being filled under triage conditions with young kids and women getting seats in lifeboats first. That is the main action beginning to take place onboard.

Authentic deck chair from the Titanic

Off to the side, however, are a few people who are busy fighting over ownership of a limited number of deck chairs. Securing a deck chair ensures its occupant of getting a panoramic view of icebergs and of what is likely to be the sinking of the vessel they are on. Those clamoring to get off the ill-fated ocean liner are the distant-future lookers. Those fighting for deck chairs are obviously taking the shortest term view by focusing on the immediate future.

Who are those people (guys actually) who are squabbling over the proverbial Titanic "deck chairs"? Sadly, in this analogy they represent several leaders around the globe. The most recent example is that of Russia's President Vladimir Putin's claim for territory under Arctic ice. As used to be the case in the Age of Exploration, the planting of a flag could constitute a claim to territory in the name of a king, emperor, or country. Putin apparently sent two ocean submersibles to the depths of the Arctic Ocean in order to plant a titanium Russian flag, claiming what until now had been seen as an out-of-reach, seemingly useless, continental shelf extension. With a human-induced or enhanced global warming melting the Arctic ice, the shelf becomes more accessible and therefore more desirable for exploitation of oil, gas and any other minerals that might be discovered.

The Russian act of flag planting and claim of sovereignty caught other Arctic countries by surprise. To date no one has made such a specific blatant undersea land grab, not that they had not thought about it! After all, people are people and human nature ultimately rules. When there are no formal rules to follow, greed seems to trump many other emotions.

Interestingly, the Canadians and the Americans, among others, seem to be salivating at the prospects of an ice-free, navigable Arctic Ocean. It was reported early in 2006 that several non-Arctic countries were building all-season polar icebreakers: China, Great Britain, South Korea, and South Africa. Goods could more easily be shipped from the Atlantic to the Pacific and vice versa, a route that would be several thousand miles shorter than through the Panama Canal. All this to take advantage of the short-term benefits that a global warming would provide.

Alaskans who receive cash benefits to the person from the oil Alaska exports to an oil hungry world are among the first to suffer from the effects of global warming. Yet, they still want even more oil to be extracted, sold and burned which ultimately puts more heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. As the permafrost thaws increasing amounts of methane enter into the atmosphere as well. And the Alaskan downward spiral of well-being continues.

 

Winners and Losers

About 20 years ago, when I first raised the issue of “winners and losers” in climate change, two agencies supported my international workshop on the topic. Their support for the workshop, held in Malta in 1990, led to one UN funding agent being reprimanded and the other American funding agent being fired. Then, the idea that there might be winners is a global warming scenario was not to be discussed, at least not in a public forum. Perhaps the concern was that if the winners in global warming (the industrialized countries) were the same ones causing the harm to others (making them losers) then those benefiting from the harm that was caused to others would be liable along the lines of the “polluter pays" principle. Only a few years later in the early 1990s it became acceptable to talk of winners as well as losers resulting from a human-induced globally warmed earth. Such an obvious issue could not be covered up for long.

Now, twenty years later, corporations as well as governments and researchers are actively and openly positioning themselves as global warming winners. To be fair, the Russian claim for North Pole oil and gas was not the first such move; discussion of warm water ports around the Arctic nations has been going on for some time. This is symptomatic of the myopic nature of policy makers, to be short-sighted even as the specter of catastrophe looms large on the horizon.

With such claims being made on Arctic sea bed resources, can the Antarctic treaty really hold off any similar “oil, gas, and mineral rush” (analogous to a ‘gold rush”) once a rumor of the existence of such a resource circulates. Sad as it is, it will likely get worse, as governments and political leaders seek advantage from a warmer climate instead of tackling sources of climate change head on!

It is a sad day in the 21st century when a political leader such as Putin can unilaterally attempt to make such a land grab that results from human induced global warming, the same global warming that will cause massive forest fires in Russia's Far East, dry up parts of the country, and melt its permafrost. Is it a sign of the state of international politics (a country seeking to reclaim a dominant role in history) or is it a sign of the stupidity factor in human nature? Maybe it is a sign of both. Napoleon is dead but Napoleonic desire for conquest apparently is not.

American novelist Ernest Hemingway once produced a book title, "Winner Takes Nothing." The truth seems to be that those who seek to take advantage of the short-term beneficial consequences of climate change can be considered "winners" in some sense. The reality, however, may be that in the long run, "climate change winners take nothing," as long-term devastation wouldwide will overshadow the sum of those short-term worldwide gains.

With respect to climate change, we need to rethink what exactly it means to be a loser and perhaps more importantly, what it means to be a winner on a hotter planet with an uncertain hydrologic cycle.

--Michael H. Glantz

NB: the title of this editorial was inspired by 2 works: a musical called “Oh What a Lovely War” and by R.K. White's classic work on the origins of World War I, “Nobody Wanted War” … but they had the war anyway.

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