China's melting ice-cap silver lining

Never mind the doom scenarios. Climate change could cut shipping time from Shanghai to Hamburg. Win-win!

Published March 5, 2010 6:31PM (EST)

Melting ice-caps -- It's a good news bad news kind of thing. Because while on the one hand the rapid release of methane gas from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf may doom the planet to a catastrophic rise in temperature, on the other hand, open sea lanes in the North could save the Chinese a lot of time and money.

From "China Prepares For an Ice-Free Arctic," an exceedingly well-sourced monograph by Linda Jakobson, the Acting Program Director and Beijing-based Senior Researcher of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's China and Global Security Program: (Thanks to Ben Muse for the link.)

Because China's economy is reliant on foreign trade, there are substantial commercial implications if shipping routes are shortened during the summer months each year. Nearly half of China's gross domestic product (GDP) is thought to be dependent on shipping. The trip from Shanghai to Hamburg via the Northern Sea Route  -- which runs along the north coast of Russia from the Bering Strait in the east to Novaya Zemlya in the west -- is 6400 kilometers shorter than the route via the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal. Moreover, due to piracy, the cost of insurance for ships travelling via the Gulf of Aden towards the Suez Canal increased more than tenfold between September 2008 and March 2009.

Since the prospect of climate change isn't a hotly contested political football in China, the country is free to pay serious attention to the real-world implications of rising temperatures. China has no territorial rights to the Arctic, but nonetheless boasts "one of the world's strongest polar scientific research capabilities," writes Jakobson.

Chinese research remains primarily focused on how the melting Arctic will affect China's continental and oceanic environment and how in turn such changes could affect domestic agricultural and economic development. However, a small number of Chinese researchers are publicly encouraging the government to actively prepare for the commercial and strategic opportunities that a melting Arctic presents. Li Zhenfu of Dalian Maritime University has, together with a team of specialists, assessed China's advantages and disadvantages when the Arctic sea routes open up. "Whoever has control over the Arctic route will control the new passage of world economics and international strategies," writes Li, referring both to the shortened shipping routes between East Asia and Europe or North America and to the abundant oil, gas, mineral and fishery resources presumed to be in the Arctic.

Hmm, maybe we'd better send Senator James Inhofe to Beijing, to tell them about how the whole climate change thing is a crock. He's doing a pretty good job at stalling action on climate change in the U.S., so perhaps he can also prevent the Chinese from controlling "the new passage of world economics and international strategies."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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