Climate change is, and always has been, an economic issue. In rapidly warming Greenland, the economic issue isn't about how to balance reduced carbon emissions with energy production. Instead, it's about how the country might take advantage of the minerals and resources revealed by the retreating ice.
Most of the country lies within the Arctic Circle; for much of the year, it is blanketed with a massive ice sheet. (The country was intentionally misnamed, legend has it, in a vain attempt to lure settlers with the promise of much more green than actually exists.) As temperatures increase — twice as fast in the Arctic as in the rest of the world, as Science reports — Greenland's ice has begun to melt at a remarkable rate. (See image at left.) Last August, nearly the entire ice surface in the country melted over a brief period, though it eventually re-froze.
That's where the opportunity comes in. Foreign Affairs reports that the changing climate and changing political relationship with Denmark, the country's long-time patron, has spurred a push for expanded resource exploration, and a repeal of a ban on certain types of extraction.
In elections here last March, the ban was the dominant campaign issue. The social democratic Siumut (Forward) Party won 43 percent of the vote on promises to lift the ban and negotiate large royalties from international mining companies. This week, Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond took a crucial first step in making good on that promise, overturning the law in parliament with a single 15–14 vote. Her government has also signed a 30-year licensing agreement with London Mining to extract iron ore — the largest project of its kind in Greenland’s history.
As Reuters notes, the repeal doesn't only apply to iron ore: it also allows the extraction of uranium and rare earth elements, "minerals used in 21st century products from wind turbines to hybrid cars and smart phones." When Denmark exercised more control over Greenland's resources, extraction of uranium was forbidden. No longer.
Foreign Affairs notes that uranium extraction and rare earth mineral extraction likely can't be separated: the former is a byproduct of the latter. "The most bullish analysts predict that Greenland could become the world’s fifth-largest uranium exporter," the magazine notes, "with the potential to bring in revenues of $20 billion a year." If you're interested in opening up shop, Denmark offers an interactive map detailing known resource locations. They're largely in the southern part of the country — correlating to where there is less ice coverage.
It isn't only land ice melt that is bolstering Greenland's new economic opportunity. The town of Narsaq, located on a fjord far to the north in the country, was the centerpiece of the Foreign Affairs story. As Arctic ice melts each year, generally reaching its lowest point in September, access to points in northern Greenland like Narsaq has increased. More shipping routes near and around the country means that the cost of selling extracted minerals drops. Earlier this year, a Danish freighter sailed through the Northwest Passage — that is, the Arctic sea route above Canada — carrying a load of carbon-rich coal.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the prospect of drawing uranium out of the Earth. Foreign Affairs:
On a recent afternoon in Nuuk, a crowd of more than 100 took to the streets of the capital with chants of "Naamik uran" -- Greenlandic for "No uranium." Many wore white hazmat suits over their puffy winter clothes, carrying signs with slogans like "No More Fukushima."
But if there's one thing that environmental activists from other countries can reliably convey to Greenland's nascent anti-extraction community, it's this: The lure of money is a hard force to overcome.