From Iceland — Here Be Sleeping Dragons

Here Be Sleeping Dragons

Published February 27, 2015

A response to “Here be dragons“ by Anna Manning

Here Be Sleeping Dragons
Photo by
Chad Teer/Wikimedia Commons

A response to “Here be dragons“ by Anna Manning

In her article “Here be Dragons,” Anna Manning attempts a “summary of debates surrounding oil exploration to the north of Iceland.” She fails—and that’s a problem. In this response we try to set the record straight with regards to two fundamental misunderstandings.

The IPCC’s message

According to the article, the latest IPCC report “simply said that more effort needs to be made in development of renewable energies, and that countries need to be more mindful of their carbon emissions,” and that the only thing that needs to be done is that we stop the “irresponsible mass production” of fossil fuels within the coming 85 years—so we basically have an eternity. This interpretation of the report’s messages is outrageously wrong and it seems hard to conceive that a thorough read-through of the report would have yielded these conclusions. Based on her interpretation of the IPCC report, the author refers to concerns over the drilling in the Arctic as “somewhat reactionary.“

Concerns over new oil fields are by no means “reactionary”. The very same IPCC report clearly states that if we are to have a chance of limiting warming to less than 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels, “substantial cuts in anthropogenic GHG emissions” are needed “by mid-century through large-scale changes in energy systems.” The IPCC further states that current mitigation efforts are insufficient to prevent “severe, widespread and irreversible impacts, globally,” adding that “inertia in the economic and climate systems… increases the benefits of near-term mitigation efforts.”

What does this mean, exactly?

It means that the IPCC is not just politely asking us to “be mindful” of our carbon emissions, nor is it kindly inviting us to make some “more efforts” to develop renewable alternatives to fossil fuels, as the author seems to think. On the contrary! Its authors call for immediate reductions of the burning and extraction of fossil fuels, stressing that cutting GHG emissions as of now is our only hope of avoiding the catastrophes of climate change. They tell us that the world our children inherit will be drastically different to the one we inhabit if we fail to heed this call. They tell us our time is running out. This is not a friendly reminder. It is an unmistakable call for action, and the longer we remain addicted to fossil fuels, the more drastic and potentially disrupting the unavoidable energy transition will be.

And what is the world doing in response to this? Burning and extracting more fossil fuels than ever before in the history of humankind. The IPCC has confirmed that we can emit no more than 565 gigatonnes of carbon if we want to have a good chance of staying below the 2°C warming level. Meanwhile, the carbon already contained in the reserves of the world’s fossil fuel companies (and countries with a state-owned fossil fuel sector) is 2,795 gigatonnes. Which means that we are en route to burn five (5!) times as much carbon as the IPCC considers safe.

This is the context in which Iceland embarks on its oil adventure.

Let us give you two scenarios for what might happen if Iceland goes ahead with the drilling. Let‘s assume we find oil, which seems likely, and start extraction for export in the next two to three decades. If the world‘s countries have not yet gotten off the fossil fuel addiction by then, Iceland might actually profit from the oil extraction. Which means we would actively be partaking in planetary destruction for short-term economic gains. That will make our children proud, won‘t it? Alternatively, let‘s assume that the world‘s countries come to an agreement on substantial reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and the phase-out of fossil fuels. This might entail, in all likelihood, a high carbon emission tax and a ban or tight restrictions on the extraction of fossil fuels. This would render costly oil drilling, for example in the Arctic, highly unprofitable and turn Iceland‘s investments into stranded assets.

Now, is it reactionary to stand up and demand an end to this insanity?

On the perception of risk

The Grapevine article acknowledges that oil extraction in Drekasvæði would entail grave ecological and economic dangers. Quoting Stephen Macko the author states that “if a spill like Deepwater Horizon were to occur in the region it would devastate fishing, as well as do irreversible damage to the Arctic.“ But what the author does not reveal to the reader is Prof. Macko’s conclusion, namely, that the oil extraction in the area is not worth the risk. Instead the article explains that the Deep Water Horizon Accident was “deemed “an entirely preventable disaster” by the American White House’s oil spill commission”. The author then reassures the reader that stronger regulations would render such an event “very unlikely” but that a residual risk remains in the form of human error.

In theory, all disasters are preventable, be it the Deep Water Horizon accident or the Chernobyl disaster. However, these accidents—and numerous other “preventable” ones—did happen. The interplay of countless variables makes the real world too complex for us to anticipate all possible scenarios. Regulations therefore will never entirely eliminate all risks. In addition, our experience with offshore drilling in the Arctic is almost non-existent and the harsh weather conditions in the area add further uncertainty. And, as acknowledged by the author, human error always remains a potential source of risk.

If we imagine a wide application of offshore drilling in the Drekasvæði area and the always-present residual risks, we come to understand that the question is not if an accident will happen, but when.

What will be lost or jeopardised if the oil starts flowing into the Arctic sea? Entire, unique ecosystems—potentially for good. Iceland’s highly valuable fisheries. Also for good. Is this a risk worth taking? Is this a responsibility Icelanders are willing to bear?

Final words

In the face of all these risks and uncertainties, why then the wild goose, or should we say, dragon chase? Why the tar sands? Or risky drilling in cold waters under tough conditions? Because like the banks bet against the Icelandic króna so now companies and certain governments want to bet against any tough climate change regulation or policies that would put a price on carbon reflecting its real social and environmental costs.

The sea monsters that inhabited the unknown territories of the 16th century might have sparked excitement in the hearts and minds of adventurous people at the time. It is true that the unknown and the unexplored excites and attracts us. But the drilling for oil in the Arctic should fill us with no such excitement. It should terrify us, because we do know what unacceptable risks it entails. And what terrible losses we might suffer.

We have only one chance of doing this right and time is running out. Let the dragon sleep.

On behalf of Grugg,
Hrönn G. Guðmundsdóttir, M.Sc. in Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science
Nína M. Saviolidis, M.Sc. in Environment and Natural Resources

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