Sacrifice for thee, but not for me? Prayers for global action and local coal mining launch ‘climate pilgrimage’

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As the first step in a “climate pilgrimage,” it was a precarious one. Prayers for leaders to help the global community by taking action to combat climate change – accompanied by prayers for leaders to help the local community by keeping coal mining alive in Svalbard.

About 20 people started the pilgrimage at noon Sunday by gathering in Longyearbyen for a “climate Mass” on a hillside next to an ancient mining trestle, with the decaying former coal processing plant and pollution from the smokestack at the power station in the backdrop against the pristine Arctic fjords. The pilgrimage will continue with a southward walking tour on the mainland until August, with other European countries joining leading up the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December.

The hillside setting and sermon exposed the complex and emotional range of issues that have thwarted past attempts at meaningful action, prompting many climate experts and activists to question if Paris will be any different.

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Anne Lise Sandvik and Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen administer Communion during a climate Mass on Sunday at a mining trestle uphill from the church. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen began his climate sermon by discussing the crisis at Store Norske, which laid off 100 of its 340 employees earlier this year and is relying on a 500-million-kroner government bailout to avoid bankruptcy, and its effect on Longyearbyen as a community now and in the future. He acknowledged praying for the coal company’s well being could be seen as hypocritical at a time when the industry is among those considered the most environmentally unfriendly, but there are offsetting factors to be considered in the larger overall climate debate.

“There are a lot of dilemmas,” he said. “But still, some mining coal mining in a valley in Svalbard is not going to affect climate. We can also use this as a lab for new technology.”

The Norwegian government has been hesitant to fund large-scale projects in Svalbard focusing on cleaner and alternative energy, including a proposed carbon capture and storage facility for Longyearbyen’s coal power plant. But Helgesen said the coal crisis and Norway’s desire to preserve a strong community presence in the archipelago may be a motivator for “purification, for new technology and also for new forms of energy.”

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Kim Holmén, international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute and one of three co-editors/authors of the new book “The Ice is Melting: Ethics in the Arctic,” serves as the polar bear guard during Sunday’s climate mass. “The priest handed me a rifle and told me to shoot it,” he said, referring to how he got the unusual liturgical assignment. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Helgesen is one of three co-editors of the book “The Ice is Melting: Ethics in the Arctic,” a collection of essays by various authors published earlier this year in Norwegian and just released in English. He wrote or co-wrote several chapters discussing the effects of climate change on Svalbard and elsewhere, including one where he asserts that while coal mining is contrary to Norway’s goal of reducing carbon-capture emissions, the industry’s remaining lifespan here due to nearly tapped-out supplies is so short it’s overshadowed by far bigger threats.

“An oil spill in the waters off Svalbard would cause far more devastation than a few lumps of coal from the depths of the mountains around Svea and Longyearbyen,” he wrote. “Primary production in the ocean takes place at the ice edge. This means the region teens with life both in the water and the air, and in the ice itself. It would take very little to perturb that valuable life.”

But both coal and oil are proving to be tricky issues for politicians seeking to further enrich Norway by tapping its resources while urging others not to do so – a common behavior among governments and people worldwide that Helgesen repeatedly refers to in the book when confronting the toughest challenges of achieving meaningful climate reform.

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A concluding hymn is perfomed during the climate Mass as pollution from Longyearbyen’s coal-fired power plant mixes with clouds in the background. Between congregation and power plant is the abandoned Taubanesentralen coal processing facility. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Two days before the climate sermon, Parliament unanimously voted to rid Norway’s seven-billion-kroner oil wealth fund of holdings in mining and power companies that generate more than 30 percent of their output or revenue from coal – a total of up to 75 countries representing holdings of up to 40 billion krone, according to government estimates. Parliamentary leaders stated the decision was based on financial as well as environmental factors, since the coal industry’s future is dubious due to low prices and the demand for lower-polluting forms of energy.

But Parliament is also expected to vote on – and approve – the Store Norske bailout package recommended by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries, prompting numerous accusations of hypocrisy from national and international observers. The Conservative-led government also recently opened areas to oil drilling at globally unprecedented northern latitudes equally those of Bjørnøya.

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