Mike Baillie
Mike Baillie

The Arctic: Why you should give a damn

The Arctic is melting.
The Arctic is thawing — reaching record lows this decade as Arctic temperatures are at their highest in the last 44 000 years. Climate change is heating our planet, and we could soon see ice-free summers at the North Pole.

In their latest climate report, scientists around the world are more emphatic than they’ve ever been. The link between fossil fuels, carbon emissions, and climate change is concrete: as clearly established as the link between smoking and cancer. In the world of science, this is about the most certain things get.

Yet as we face this report, as the Arctic drips away and new areas of seabed are revealed, oil companies like Shell (are you listening, Vida?) and Gazprom are rushing into the Arctic to drill for oil. They’re hoping to find more of the very stuff that’s heating our planet in the first place, in an environment where an oil spill would be impossible to clean up.

You can’t be more short-sighted or greedy than this.

Today — right now — fossil-fuel companies already have more reserves than what we can safely use. If they stopped exploring for new oil fields this minute, and used only what they’d already accounted for, we’d still far exceed our carbon budget.

And yet last year alone the top 200 fossil-fuel companies spent $674 billion dollars on exploring for new resources and reserves.

Just more than a month ago, 28 activists took peaceful action. They tried to climb a Gazprom oilrig that was heading to the Arctic. They were arrested and now could face up to seven years in jail. Their goal was to draw attention to the oil drilling, to the danger it poses to the Arctic environment, and to the global climate.

Talk about this in South Africa and you’ll be quickly told it’s not relevant here. It’s about ice caps and polar bears: we’re in Africa.

But for me the bottom line is that this is about climate change — and climate change is about Africa. Take any social issue we’re grappling with today — food security, poverty, women’s rights, land access, refugees, water, energy generation — they will all be exacerbated by climate change. It is a human-rights issue and it transcends our borders.

The melting Arctic is a symptom of a disease that has many pustules in Africa. And it’s a symptom that’s being exploited to line the pockets of oil companies like Shell — and yet they’ll be the last ones to live with the impacts. Rich countries and the leaders of mega corporations can afford to guard themselves from the effects of climate change. They’ll firm up their borders and build taller walls: We’re the ones who’ll be left dealing with a problem we aren’t entirely responsible for. Privatise the profits, socialise the costs, leave the bill for those least able to pay.

The story of climate change is an African story. But in this case, while our leaders are scrambling for sushi and champagne, and while climate change falls off the bottom of our priority list, the story has some new heroes, outside of Africa. The 28 activists who climbed that rig are not African — but the reason they did it, and what they stand for, couldn’t be more so.

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