Book review – Cold Rush: The Astonishing True Story of the New Quest for the Polar North

Cold Rush is one of those books that invites a facepalm and a groan of: “humans… sigh”. The Arctic turns out to be particularly sensitive to climate change – the extent of sea ice cover has been hitting record-lows in the last decade, polar bears are moving into new areas as their habitat disappears, Greenland’s glaciers are melting in record-tempo, and scientists are publicly worrying we will see the North Pole free of ice within decades. You would think that we would be concerned. Instead, the nations around the Arctic rub their hands in glee: “Look at all these business opportunities: new shipping routes, newly accessible oil, gas, and mineral reserves… oh boy, we are going to make so much money!”

Cold Rush

Cold Rush: The Astonishing True Story of the New Quest for the Polar North“, written by Martin Breum, published by I.B. Tauris in June 2018 (hardback, 252 pages)

Danish journalist Martin Breum has been reporting on the Arctic for the last decade, both at home and abroad, and Cold Rush is based on selected and updated chapters from previous Danish books. He provides an intimate reportage of the political wheeling and dealing behind the scenes as various nations start to lay claim to the Arctic, specifically focusing on Greenland and its fraught relationship with Denmark. (For those looking for a wider picture beyond Greenland, I would also recommend The Scramble for the Arctic: Ownership, Exploitation and Conflict in the Far North, The Future History of the Arctic: How Climate, Resources and Geopolitics are Reshaping the North, and Why it Matters to the World, and The Scramble for the Poles: The Geopolitics of the Arctic and Antarctic.)

Greenland is a bit of an enigma. Geographically part of the North American landmass, it is a former colony and now autonomous country of the Kingdom of Denmark, boosting that country’s surface area more than 50-fold. But with only 57,000 or so inhabitants, it remains firmly dependent on Denmark. Through a so-called block grant, Denmark supports the Greenland government with an annual 3.4 billion kroner (roughly 500 million US dollars) that pays for things such as pensions, hospitals, and schools. And Denmark contributes vessels, aircraft, and dog sledge teams that patrol the borders and waters year-round (Breum accompanies one such patrol and reports on that here). A final fun factoid I got from this book: the UK is not the first country to exit the EU, Greenland did so back in 1985! I wonder how many people are aware of this because in two years of Brexit circus I have not heard this mentioned once.

The period covered by Cold Rush is the last decade since 2007, during which there was a lot of geopolitical shenanigans in and around the Arctic. Russian submarines planted a flag on the seabed of the North Pole in 2007, with diplomats on all sides quickly downplaying this as “not-a-claim”. That, however, has not stopped Russia and Denmark from trying anyway (Canada is expected to follow suit in the near future). Attention has centred on the Lomonosov Ridge, a long, underwater mountain range. Whoever can prove this to be an extension of their continental shelf can try and claim it as territory by applying to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. If granted, it would secure exploitation rights to whatever mineral and fossil fuel riches might be found there. Breum reports on one particular Danish research cruise he accompanied that was trying to determine whether the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of Greenland’s bedrock. The findings resulted in Denmark claiming a large swathe of the seabed that overlaps with Russia’s earlier claim, setting the stage for tensions in the Arctic.

“There has been a lot of geopolitical shenanigans in and around the Arctic since 2007, with Russian submarines planting a flag on the seabed of the North Pole […]”

But is there anything of value out there? Results of seismic surveys so far are disappointing and Breum writes of the 2014 report by geologist Minik Rosing that warned of unfounded optimism regarding fuel and mineral reserves. Even so, governments are not taking risks and tensions rose when Denmark, Norway, Russia, Canada, and the US signed the Ilulissat Declaration, encouraging cooperation and the protection of their mutual Arctic interests, effectively locking the rest of the world out of further negotiations. This, of course, much to the chagrin of other countries who see this as a Machiavellian attempt to not share the Arctic pie (see also Contesting the Arctic: Politics and Imaginaries in the Circumpolar North).

Especially China is keen to shoulder its way in, which, as Breum makes clear, has more to do with mineral riches than fossil fuel. The retreating Greenland glaciers are expected to expose new mineral beds and China is particularly interested in rare earth elements, so vital in modern electronics that they produce and export in abundance (see also The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age). Countries are lining up to sign mining licenses, and there is much debate inside and outside of Greenland whether or not to let foreign companies in. One particularly sensitive topic is uranium ore, as Denmark is adamant that none of it is used in the production of nuclear weapons. But Greenland wants to have the final say in this matter and, worryingly, parliament abolished a national ban on uranium mining in 2014.

This last is symptomatic of the final major theme of this reportage: independence. There are influential voices in Greenland pushing for full independence from Denmark and Breum provides an intimate picture based on interviews with prominent politicians. Denmark is keen to keep its ties to Greenland as it stands much to lose. But even in Greenland the topic is divisive. Many hope that developing Greenland into a mining nation will wean it off the financial life support provided by Denmark. Opening up the country to foreign investors would be a logical first step. Others argue financial independence is decades away and are worried that, meanwhile, Greenland’s small population will be overrun by foreign labourers.

“[…] there is little interest in turning Greenland into a nature reserve. Politicians argue that Greenland has every right to exploit its natural wealth, nature be damned […]”

One thing seems for sure, there is little interest in turning Greenland into a nature reserve. Politicians argue that Greenland has every right to exploit its natural wealth – nature be damned. After all, is this not what every other nation has done so far? And this brings me to what seems like a curious omission. Although Breum seems well aware of the looming environmental problems, climate change never comes up in conversation, merely hovering in the background as the spectre yielding new opportunities. Greenpeace and environmental activism are mentioned a few times, but beyond that, all we hear are political platitudes about the desire to balance natural resource extraction with environmental protection. I cannot tell whether everyone is completely preoccupied with the promise of new riches, or whether Breum has decided to make this his exclusive focus.

The reporting in Cold Rush is thorough and impartial – where politics is concerned Breum speaks to parties pro and contra matters such as foreign investment, Greenland’s push for independence, etc. But he refrains from any personal reflection, merely acting as a dispassionate observer. Despite some of the source material having been published in various forms previously, the chapters have been rewritten such that the book flows well and does not unnecessarily repeat information. The result is a revealing and very informative insider’s account of the geopolitical manoeuvring in the Arctic. Highly recommended to be read alongside Brave New Arctic: The Untold Story of the Melting North, which will fill you in on the climatological details.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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Cold Rush hardback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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