Friday, March 1, 2013

Far-flung and near: the Arctic and climate change

In the last issue of the New York Review of Books, Ian Frazier reviews Subhankar Banerjee’s anthology Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point. Banerjee is a photographer and activist who has been recording the changing Arctic for the past decade or so.  Arctic Voices is an anthology composed of writing and photography documenting climate change and fossil fuel exploitation in the Arctic. 

The Arctic is a particular place of interest, because like the rural, it tends to exist outside of our everyday mainframe.  It seems that the Arctic is not only spatially isolated, but temporality is experienced differently as well, the lived experience there is appropriate for the longue duree.  NYRB contributor Ian Frazier quotes environmentalist and activist Bill McKibben describing the Arctic environment as nestled “deep in geological time.”

The Arctic is a site for exploitation of fossil fuels and rare minerals, and so, despite its far-flung positionality, the harms experienced by Arctic peoples directly implicates the larger political economy surrounding extractive industries and energy production.  The particular industry of resource extraction concerns all of us, the cost and question of energy pervades so much of our everyday life, and must be contended with, brought into our everyday consciousness. 

I have been thinking a lot about the Arctic. Not only do residents of the Arctic directly experience the negative externalities that coincide with fossil fuel and mineral extraction, the Arctic is now warming at twice the rate as the rest of the world. The paradox of the Arctic is this: due to their traditional lifeways, native Arctic communities  do not consume energy as ravenously as compared to the average city dweller, let's say, and so by extension, their carbon footprint is much lighter than modern societies.  And yet, and yet, they are experiencing warming at twice the rate as the rest of the world. 

In the age of climate change where it is difficult to experience the “impact” of climate change as specific discrete events, despite Hurricane Sandy, despite record droughts, despite 2012 being the hottest year in US history, despite warnings from some of the leading scientists of our time that going forward with the regulatory status quo will quite literally lead to apocalyptic disaster, we must cast our attention to the most far-flung, least considered spaces.  Because there, in the Arctic, for example, we witness the most rapid effects of climate change occurring in real time, with real consequences, and real harms, to the most vulnerable populations. 

Kivalina v. ExxonMobil, a case recently decided before the Ninth Circuit, articulates the harm experienced by a traditional Inupiat village located on the tip of a barrier reef on the Chukchi Sea in Alaska.  Due to increasing coastal erosion and melting sea ice, the Native Village of Kivalina will have to be relocated from their ancestral home at the cost of anywhere between $95 million to $400 million. The language of law is instructive.  The Government Accountability Office calls it relocation.  The Ninth Circuit ruled that Kivalina’s claim is precluded by federal regulatory displacement of common law claims.  I like this word displacement, some ironic catachresis. It highlights the disjuncture, this gap between legal language and the descriptive language of what is actually occurring in Kivalina: because common law claims are being displaced by federal regulations, the residents of Kivalina’s actual physical displacement from their land cannot be redressed by the court. 

Consider some other descriptive possibilities: rootshock and genocide.  I have been thinking a lot about the Arctic.  Give a thing a name and find the law to let the narrative develop or give a thing a name and find the law to squash it.  Welcome to the Anthropocene age, welcome to climate change and the law.   

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