Any discussion of the Arctic depends largely on perspective, and Martin Breum’s book Cold Rush gives us the view from an often overlooked major player in the region: Denmark. While the United States discussions these days focus on the possibilities for military confrontation in the polar north, or Washington D.C. and Alaska argue over access to oil and mineral resources, Breum gives a historical view of how Copenhagen, and the not-yet-independent Greenland, see geopolitics and the environment. Starting around the year 2000, Denmark increasingly asserted territorial and exclusive economic zone rights north of Greenland along the underwater Lomonsov Ridge, and by 2014 claimed sovereignty over the North Pole seabed itself. The book was originally published in 2015 in Danish, and in English translation in 2018. Many of the events are centered around 2010–2012, which are dated now, but in a curious way. In reading a hopeful view of the future of the Arctic, starting with the Ilulissat Declaration in 2008, it may be clear to many readers that Russian foreign policy changed since that time (especially post 2014), that technology such as gas fracking shifted plans for exploration, that Shell Oil’s disastrous 2015 Arctic effort and $7 billion loss tempered expectations, and that more recently shifts away from fossil fuels have accelerated. What is hopeful now would be an energy transition, not risky extraction in the far north.
Those looking for straight discussions of the politics behind the Arctic may become frustrated with Breum’s long descriptions of travels in the region, of expeditions on a Swedish icebreaker to the North Pole, and historical flashbacks to previous explorers. Yet in understanding the Danish vision of the Arctic, perhaps such descriptions help in placing actions in an environmental context. The scientists feel they are just doing research, and yet there are machinations that they do not fully understand behind why they were funded. Some may feel they are extending benevolent Danish sovereignty in order to protect the environment, while environmentalists fear the same actions establish resource rights and pave the way for oil and gas drilling. Even the benevolent narratives from Copenhagen toward Nuuk (in Greenland) involve establishing Greenland as self-sufficient based on oil, gas, and mineral mining. Some analyses, including outside this book, attribute the Danish goals to trying to maintain an important link with Greenland and the Faroes. But it is difficult to read all the descriptions of expedition histories and repeated phrases of “the Danish kingdom was expanding” and not think of Manifest Destiny and the American West, with all the baggage that entails.
The book does attempt to grapple with some of the obvious contradictions: that Greenlanders are not necessarily in favor of a fossil fuel-based economy, that they worry about undue influence from emerging great powers like China, and that the traditional military deployments (and associated environmental risks) from the United States have never disappeared. This is the same legal and political issue faced by Alaska Natives, Canadian First Nations, and Norwegian Saami; that in order to assert sovereignty and control of a territory, there had to be a visible presence of the flag and use of resources (Kuehls 1996). The book quotes a senior Danish defense official: “If suddenly, after 400 years, we are no longer present, eventually we will notice - not the day after or even a month after, but over time - that others start to ask the question: Who actually owns this place? Who has the right to this area (p. 63)?”
There are no clear answers to this question, especially in areas where no humans live, as in the Arctic Sea. Even if oil and gas are abandoned as prospects, the renewable economy requires rare earth elements. This raises the issue of mining, where areas like Greenland, Alaska, and Siberia contain the minerals necessary for any technological green revolution, and with arguably better ethical and security conditions than south-central Africa. Yet when even the Trump family openly disparaged such proposed projects, as they did with the Pebble Mine project in Alaska, environmental impacts and the role of outside corporations are legitimate concerns. In areas like Greenland, what capacity exists for effective environmental impact assessments, monitoring, and regulation? Where would the profits go, if the mining companies are all foreign-owned? Would this just offer a foothold for greater expansion of countries like China, whose Belt and Road Initiative would doubtless offer infrastructure expansion to Greenlanders, at the risk of being forever in debt to China? Who gets to decide?
Climate change has also upended many traditional concepts, as actions taken thousands of kilometers away can and do affect the Arctic, so in one sense the world has a collective responsibility for these sensitive and fragile ecosystems. Should we leave governance only to the five countries directly bordering the Arctic Sea, as in the Danish-led Ilulissat Declaration? Yet there is the practicality of wondering who will observe those values, once the ice melts more and Chinese freighters can make trans-polar navigation routes, when an assertive Russia moves military forces ever farther north, or when cruise liners take tourists into these previously inaccessible areas. The book touches on all these issues, but in a sense, but more as a narrative than a research project. Our visions of the environment depend upon how we see our histories and our futures, and this book paints an intriguing portrait of many of the individuals and remote locations overlooked in the more heated discussions of national security.