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Eyes on the Ice


There is no longer any doubt that the Earth is warming and that human activities are responsible. The “Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” (IPCC), released on 27 September in Stockholm, confirmed that scientific message. The IPCC stressed that only with drastic cuts in emissions can we avert the worst climate change impacts. Yet, from the media coverage, there seems little hope that the IPCC report will build a new political will actually to address this dire situation.

At the forefront of this environmental megatrend of climate change is the Arctic. Among the IPCC’s headline messages: Greenland’s ice sheet has been losing mass over the past two decades, and the Arctic sea ice cover is “very likely” to continue to shrink. The Arctic sea ice has already shrunk dramatically, both in thickness and in extent, hitting a record low in 2012, with only 24% of the Arctic Ocean surface covered with ice. This year’s satellite images did not show another record low at the end of the summer — just one more dot in the jagged downward slope. These “eyes on the ice” showed a large area of nearly open water close to the North Pole. The Arctic has moved into a new era, in which it is possible to think about the Arctic Ocean as a seasonally open sea filled with omens of rapid global climate change, but also, for some, with new commercial opportunities.

The first alerts of the dramatic impacts of climate change in the Arctic came in 2004, with the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA). But the real jolt came in 2007 when the Arctic sea ice cover shrank to 29%, a record low at the time — nearly a quarter less ice than the previous record low, set in 2005, and 39% below the 1979-2000 average. This was an important moment, and not just because the sea ice decline went well beyond what most climate experts had anticipated — including the authors of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, released earlier that year. It also revealed a fundamental lack of knowledge about the twists and turns of climate change in relation to the dynamics of sea ice. At times the rate of change is slower, just as the atmosphere has warmed more slowly in the past few years. At other times, change is very fast and catches us by surprise.

The 2007 Arctic sea ice minimum was a stark reminder of the impacts of global climate change. It also put the Arctic in the political limelight, with attention to rich resources that would become available, new shipping possibilities and questions about sovereignty and rights in a part of the world that was previously seen as a periphery. Now the Arctic was cast as a frontier.

The next record low, in 2012, reaffirmed the trend: new predictions based on models have indicated that the Arctic Ocean could be almost ice-free in the summer within 30 years. A new Arctic geography has become visible, shown in photograph-like maps generated from satellite data. Projected on the maps are visions of new shipping routes: media stories have portrayed the Northeast Route, which connects Asia and Europe by way of the northern Russian coast, as the new Panama Canal, and the North Pole at the centre of this new world. In 2012 we also saw the deliberately spectacular voyage of the Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon from Akureyri, Iceland, across the Arctic Ocean to Shanghai.

The fact that 2013 did not bring yet another Arctic sea ice minimum could have fed denials of the reality of global climate change and credibility of climate science. But the record sea ice lows in 2007 and 2012 appear also to have brought a shift in perception: continued melting is seen as a given, and so is the idea that the shrinking ice has major regional and global consequences. In that sense, Arctic climate change has become a metaevent of the evolving global climate (1).

Reporting on climate change — in the Arctic and beyond — remains robust even despite the lack of political action and the media’s variable attention. Analyses show that the shrinking Arctic sea ice has become a symbol for far-reaching global transformations in the environmental, social, political and economic spheres — a bellwether not only of climate change but of profound global change. It is emblematic of what some scientists call the “Anthropocene” — a geological era shaped by humankind (2).

With this change of perception in mind, we can use the lack of a new sea ice minimum in 2013 as an opportunity to reflect on the implications for our understanding of the world. So far, public understanding of polar sea ice is based to a large extent on the media’s representation of natural science studies of the ice itself and circumpolar “images” of the ice that have become available, thanks to international coordination of data-gathering. More recently, traditional indigenous knowledge about the sea ice has contributed to a more nuanced understanding of the ice from local perspectives, which highlight the role of the expanding and receding ice in the everyday lives and cultures of the north.

Historical perspectives and observations from contemporary media coverage show how the Arctic ice has been used by various actors to link previously unrelated activities — and also how narratives weave together the local and the global into one story. The reader may be taken on a visit to an Inuit village but the story is really about global climate change. Likewise, plans for new local commercial activities are set in a global geopolitical context.

But the dramatic change in the Arctic has not brought any strong political action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Even in countries directly affected by Arctic change, political action is slow, sometimes close to non-existent. The emphasis is instead placed on adaptation and on new economic opportunities, including exploitation of offshore oil and gas. This raises doubts that additional scientific consensus, such as the findings presented in the new IPCC assessment, will change the political playing field. The non-response from Canada, which defines itself as an Arctic country, is a case in point, and not the only one.

If even the jolt from the 2007 sea ice minimum wasn’t enough to bring political action on emissions, we may need to look deeper into cultural perceptions of our future and our moral responsibility. The sea ice minimum brought attention to the indeterminate nature of our global future. A knee-jerk reaction to such uncertainty is to secure current interests as far as possible, and avoid fundamental change. We can strengthen adaptation efforts to avert the worst disasters and we can ensure we make the most of new opportunities, while assuming we still live in the same world as before.

An alternative is to start seriously to reflect on the new conditions brought on by the “Anthropocene” and the moral responsibility that these conditions entail. It is clear now that we cannot rely on planet Earth as a self-regulating system — a benign Gaia that will provide for us as we go about our daily life and business. To the extent that the Earth ever was a self-regulating system, we have tinkered with it. And, by our activities, we continue to push its capacity to return to something we perceive as normal.

We need knowledge of the world as it changes, in order to prepare, alter and adapt. But knowledge of natural sciences and of technology alone is not enough. The age of the “Anthropocene” is a forceful reminder that current changes are due to human action, and that we need to understand ourselves and our societies better. And that science and new technology are no use unless we employ them wisely. As the authors of the IPCC report note, what happens in the next several decades, and how fast the climate continues to change, depends on the choices we make.

With the growing connection between the global and local, we need more than ever to realise that we are a global society, and that we need to form a collective will and consensus. We also need better cooperation and dialogue between the different knowledge traditions of the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences in order to foster a deeper understanding of the Earth’s biophysical systems, and also of social context and our values and choices in a continuously shifting world.

Miyase Christensen is professor of Media and Communication Studies at Stockholm University, guest professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology and visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics.

Annika E Nilsson is senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute;

Nina Wormbs is an associate professor and head of department at the Division of History of Science, Technology and the Environment, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden.


(1) See Miyase Christensen, Annika E Nilsson and Nina Wormbs, Media and the Politics of Arctic Climate Change: When the Ice Breaks, Palgrave Macmillan, US, 2013.

(2) This notion has gained momentum from its introduction in around 2000. It is backed by data showing how the major geochemical cycles have changed and how human use of the environment has intensified in the past century, creating concern about greenhouse gases, nutrients, water, land use, etc.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.


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