Global warming has made Greenland’s melting ice sheets the largest contributors to rising sea levels. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, a major melt event occurred from September 2 to 5, 2022, causing meltwater runoff beginning at 5.6 billion tons per day and peaking with a runoff of 12 billion tons per day. At this rate, researchers estimate that between now and 2100, we will see a sea level rise of at least 27.4 cm, even if greenhouse gas emissions were to somehow cease immediately. The effects this will have on the rest of the world will of course be massive: flooding, the disruption of countless ecosystems, and the destruction of coastal infrastructure, among many other global consequences. But what is all too often ignored in climate change coverage is the perspective of the affected indigenous population in Greenland itself. How indigenous Greenlanders react to their island being the environmental ground zero for the drastic effects of global warming will decide whether the island escapes from international obscurity, and achieves its own economic and political independence, both from the Kingdom of Denmark, and from corporate interests.
Despite being the largest island on the planet, Greenland is a country often “forgotten” in international affairs. Its hostile climate, minute population, lack of major urban development, and small economy obscure it from media relevance to most of the world. The climate crisis is no exception: even as indigenous Greenlanders come face to face with the reality of climate change in their daily lives, they have remained noticeably absent from any international discussion of a proper course of action for countering global warming up until very recently.
A notable example of this absence is the Ilulissat Declaration of 2008, signed by Canada, Norway, Denmark, Russia, and the United States, which set responsibilities for each of these nations for multilateral cooperation in addressing Arctic climate and environmental issues. While Denmark represented the territory of Greenland in the Declaration, the Inuit Circumpolar Council was noticeably excluded. The absence of the indigenous body was particularly controversial due to them already having a permanent seat on the Arctic Council, setting expectations for a role in the talks — let alone the fact that the Declaration was made in Greenland. The Ilulissat Declaration was seen by many Greenlandic Inuit as an attempt to undermine indigenous authority in environmental decision-making. For the tenth anniversary of the agreement in 2018, indigenous groups like the Inuit Circumpolar Council, as well as other Arctic Council nations excluded in 2008, were invited to the commemoration — a solid publicity move, to be sure, but not exactly a leap of progress for Greenlandic representation.
When it comes to climate change and the environment, Greenland is now facing new opportunities to assert its role in international decision-making, and to further its autonomy and economic self-reliance. From August 27 to 29, the Arctic Circle Forum was held in Nuuk, the Greenlandic capital, and in a stark difference from the Ilulissat Declaration, was led by the Greenlandic government itself. The Forum was a chance for Greenland to make itself more prominent in environmental diplomacy, not only with the Arctic powers, but with the indigenous peoples living under them. A Memorandum of Understanding concerning cooperation on wildlife conservation was signed at the Forum between the governments of Greenland, Canada, and Nunavut.
Greenland has also seen a boost in international recognition due to climate change in another major way, and perhaps not in the way that many Greenlanders would hope — global warming has melted ice sheets, exposing the land below, and has made the coastal climate less severe, rendering Greenland an attractive location for industrial resource extraction.
According to the United States Geological Survey, there could be 17.5 billion barrels of oil and 148 trillion cubic feet of natural gas off the Greenlandic coast. Greenlandic oil prospects, and the increasing ease of extraction due to global warming, have placed the island on the diplomatic radar for various nations and organizations, most notably the United States. In 2020, an American consulate was opened on the island, and in May 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with members of the Greenlandic government in Nuuk. However, on June 24, 2021, the Greenlandic government made it very clear that clean energy was the island’s priority, and that oil extraction would begin to cease, stating that the country would stop granting exploration licenses. Currently, there are only four active hydrocarbon exploration licenses held by the Danish-Greenlandic company Nunaoil, which will not be renewed under Greenland’s current policy. This statement was likely a disappointment to American and Danish interests, and likewise, a cause for celebration for many Greenlandic Inuit, who saw Greenland’s new policy as a push toward freedom from foreign capitalist interests at the expense of environmental justice and indigenous sovereignty.
But there is a flip side to Greenland’s oil policy. Greenland is largely dependent on Denmark financially, receiving an annual block grant of 3.9 billion kroner (about $614 million) from the Danish government that accounts for over half of the country’s GDP. No matter how self-governing the Greenlandic government claims to be, they will never be truly sovereign if they are not economically independent. To many indigenous Greenlanders, oil extraction could create a powerful domestic industry and bring about an unprecedented level of prosperity for the island. So long as oil extraction remains in Greenlandic hands, many view oil as a means of potential economic independence from the Kingdom of Denmark. While most Greenlanders support emission reduction policies, the majority of the population does not support outright banning oil drilling. Thus, many view the Greenlandic environmental policy as sacrificing the population’s independence and financial well-being to accomplish the climate goals of far more carbon-positive powers.
The same questions for oil drilling exist in the Greenlandic mineral and sand industries, which, due to ease of access from the melting of ice sheets, have also seen a major rise in interest. With the increasing rejection of fossil fuels internationally and the corresponding rise of clean energy, there has been increased demand for minerals for turbines and electric vehicles, as well as uranium for nuclear power plants. Currently, China holds the international rare earth monopoly, a reality which has a number of undesirable diplomatic repercussions for democratic nations. Greenland could be the industrial alternative for many countries who are trying to break trade dependency with China and pursue clean energy policies on their own terms. In this pursuit, American and European corporations are eyeing Greenland’s potential mineral industry closely. China itself has an interest in Greenlandic mining: China’s Shenghe Resources maintains 12.5% ownership of Greenland Minerals. Should the Greenlandic government continue issuing mining licenses, Greenland will become a new battleground in the international competition for rare earth dominance. Greenlanders have very mixed feelings about their country’s possible industrial future in minerals. On the one hand, like oil, rare earths could be a means of indigenous economic growth and independence from Denmark’s block grants, given that the government does not cede too much power to outside corporations. On the other hand, mineral extraction could be detrimental to the indigenous way of life, threatening the environment and wildlife, and placing the fate of Greenlanders in the hands of vying Western and Chinese corporate interests, ironically all in the name of addressing climate change through clean energy.
The climate crisis presents enormous challenges, but also new opportunities from which Greenland could benefit greatly, so long as the government is wise with its decision-making. As Greenlandic Inuit continue to bear witness to the immediate effects of global warming, their government’s environmental decisions in the years to come will determine how much indigenous interests are recognized and respected both diplomatically and economically, and whether Greenland will grow in autonomy from the Kingdom of Denmark and international corporate interests.
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