The Arctic is where the future of our industrial civilization is currently being played out: the melting of the Arctic ice and of the Greenland ice cover would (and will) not only mean significant sea-level rise; it would certainly also represent an irreversible tipping point in the Earth's climate system. In other words, the accelerating changes in the Arctic affect us all. In addition, and given that industrial development (and economic growth for that matter) remain based on natural resources (fossil fuels and minerals), the Arctic, along with other resources-rich regions of the world, has become one of the new theaters of global natural resources exploitation and international rivalry. Arctic fossil fuel resources represent a significant amount of the still globally available reserves. But exploiting them is not without environmental risks. Burning them will further accelerate global warming and bring the global climate closer to the dangerous tipping point. Ironically, such resources exploration and exploitation are precisely made possible by (some of) the consequences of industrial development in the form of global warming and subsequent receding ice coverage. This means that, in the Arctic, industrial civilization has it in its hands to address the root causes of the looming global ecological crisis, or at least the root causes and consequences of global warming. The Arctic thus serves as a perfect case in point, whereby one can explore whether industrial civilization is capable of slowing down and eventually stopping fossil fuel-based (industrial) development, and who might be able to do so. This is the topic of this article, whereby the Arctic basically serves as a socio-ecological laboratory for analyzing the dynamics of fossil fuel-based industrial development. But, while being a laboratory, it is also an entirely serious case.
Matthias Finger is a Professor at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland.