Book review: ‘The Ice is Melting’ asks right questions about ethics and climate; answers remain elusive

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In a book full of questions, one of the toughest to answer is who this book is for.

It treats man-made climate change as fact, which eliminates an unfortunately large percentage of the population. It reveals little information a climate expert doesn’t already know and doesn’t make pure villains out of culprits that climate activists would surely like to see eviscerated. And ultimately the answer to all those questions is less than satisfying: we need more and better dialogue with each other.

That said, “The Ice is Melting: Ethics in the Arctic” is an important and impressive book for those who will be inclined to read it. An alternate title might be “Svalbard’s Greatest Climate Change Hits” since the 246 large-volume pages feature a series of essays by experts – including academic, religious, political and business leaders – approaching the subject from a wide variety of viewpoints. It may not alter the views of climate realists, but it should vastly improve their focus on what preventative actions are necessary (or, rather, ethically correct), and ensure they’re more thoroughly informed and organized when/if those “dialogues” take place.

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Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen delivers a “Climate Mass” at the base of a coal mining trestle in Longyearbyen in June. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

As the title suggests, the book’s ostensible purpose is examining ethical issues related to climate change, a tricky prospect since – as an early essay by two of the authors notes – it’s a clash of theory vs. science. But it’s also a familiar challenge for essay co-author Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen, who is also one of the book’s three co-editors, since he was a climate activist on behalf of the church (institutionally speaking) years before Pope Francis issued his call to “revolution” in June.

If climate skeptics do happen to pick up this book, they’ll be able to find plenty of nuggets to cherry pick in support of their cause (and painting those “alarmists” as hypocrites). Kim Holmén, another co-editor and international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, notes early on in an essay summarizing the Arctic’s climate issues that “the best climate models today are based on the best knowledge we can muster, but they still have weaknesses that are easily exposed.”

Never mind he then goes on to note scientists are aware of the weaknesses and benefit from identifying them, and “destructive critics dismiss the models…but fail to suggest a means of enhancing the models.” Or he and several other essayists detail the impacts of climate change in Svalbard, and its role limiting those impacts, with the precision of a diamond cutter. As the O.J. murder trial showed three decades ago, 21-billion-to-one scientific odds mean nothing if doubters are convinced the data is made up.

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Kim Holmén, international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, keeps watch for polar bears during the Climate Mass. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

There’s two overall strengths in the book’s essay approach. First, as the book’s three co-editors observe in their introduction, “some readers will perhaps be provoked by the absence of certain voices and opinions” – which means the more shrill voices on either side of the issue (i.e. Greenpeace’s demand for a ban on all Arctic oil drilling) are skipped in favor of more realistic debate.

Second, the variety of authors – and even multiple essays by a single author – ensures a level of readability for all mindsets. Helgesen, for instance, contributes with the philosophical theory/science chapter (and revisits the theme again when ponding the church’s role), pens a first-person fable about “an arctic dove of peace” struggling to keep from starving, and provides an analysis of commercial activity in the Arctic where (get ready to pounce again skeptics) he essentially says coal mining in Svalbard isn’t that bad while calling for other areas and industries to limit their activities.

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Ole Arve Misund, managing director of The University Centre in Svalbard, at left, welcomes people to the official unveiling of the book “The Ice is Melting: Ethics in the Arctic,” which he co-edited with Helgesen and Holmén. The book, originally released in Norwegian in February, was published in English in May. Photo by Sofia Mercadel / Norwegian Polar Institute.

The weakness in the essay approach is predictable: much of what’s presented is repetitive. Various authors cover virtually every aspect of climate change as it relates to Svalbard, branching out into subjects like fossil erosion and the seed vault. But they almost by rote have to preface and support their presentations with oft-stated assertions (i.e. climate change is happening faster in the Arctic than anywhere else, to cite a simple and obvious example).

Most of the authors agree there aren’t easy ethical resolutions to the problems they present and, while acknowledging persuading doubters is difficult, continue to make the case action is necessary to shape prevailing opinions over the long-term, much like slavery.

One problem with that approach is, according to their own arguments, humanity can’t wait decades to act to prevent horrific consequences. A non-overbearing approach also means, as Holmén writes in the penultimate paragraph, “taking responsibility for the future is not done by pointing fingers at individuals, sectors or politicians. Climate change is a problem that requires the full commitment of elected and positive civilizations where all sectors, private and public, are devoted towards creating new alternatives and solutions.” And that, some climate activists will doubtless argue, is an ethically debatable conclusion in itself.

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