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Polar Politics


Every cloud has a silver lining, and world leaders are working hard to make sure that global warming is no exception. Sure, the disappearing Arctic ice-cap -- now thinner than ever, and by some estimates likely to be all but gone by 2040 -- is bad news for polar bears and low-lying countries. But once all that pesky ice is out of the way, it’s going to be much, much easier to get at all the lovely oil that lies beneath.

With a quarter of the world’s remaining oil and gas reserves buried beneath rapidly thawing ice, every country that can contrive an interest in the Arctic circle has been scrambling to stake a territorial claim. The US sent an ice-breaker to produce a detailed sonar map of the ocean floor; Canada is boosting its military presence in the far north; Denmark is suddenly paying much closer attention to its Greenland territories.

By far the most concerted effort, though, has come from Russia. Last month, it sent a submarine to the Lomonosov Ridge, which runs beneath the North Pole. To make sure everyone got the message, the submersible planted a titanium flagpole bearing the Russian tricolor on the ocean floor.

More importantly, the mission brought back soil samples, which scientists say prove the ridge to be part of the Russian continental shelf. That’s a crucial point: Under the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea, new off-shore claims are only possible for extensions of existing territory.

The US has sniffed at the Law of the Sea for the past quarter-century, but this week the Senate will re-open talks on the treaty. With Arctic mineral wealth at stake, it’s likely the regulations will finally be ratified, assuring the US a place at the table as the world’s northernmost nations carve up the Arctic circle.

There’s an alternative to all this, of course. The Antarctic has been under international jurisdiction for more than four decades, under a treaty system that bans military or mining activity south of the 60th parallel. But the Antarctic treaty was lubricated by the absence of oil in the region. By contrast, it’s now getting easier and easier for oil companies to tap deposits at the world’s northernmost tip.

With so much money and mineral wealth at stake, there’s little hope that the world’s leaders will show much restraint. Still, they should at least have the grace to blush a little as they begin to divide up the spoils of climate change.