In 2016, Greenland’s then minister responsible for economic development, Vittus Qujaukitsoq, welcomed the appointment of Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil, as US secretary of state. Despite representing the centre-Left party Siumut (Forward) and being surrounded by some of the most visible consequences of the warming world, Qujaukitsoq and his colleagues saw the growing potential for mining and drilling brought by the melting glaciers on the world’s biggest island as an opportunity to bring in the cash which would allow the long-desired independence from Denmark.
They aren’t alone. While the melting of Arctic ice is causing the world’s oceans to overflow and disrupting its weather systems, it has also unleashed a whole new geopolitical race. Earlier this year, the US Geological Survey estimated that the region’s rocks contain 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil, and 30% of undiscovered gas – carbon sinks which have been greedily eyed up by states and oil companies alike. And many of these reserves lie in the seas west of Greenland – where there are an estimated 17.5 billion undiscovered barrels of oil, enough to supply the whole planet for six months, at current usage rates.
And because the Arctic is the fastest warming part of the planet, the ice shielding these prehistoric deposits from prying drills is thinning, and disappearing, at an alarming rate.
But if some see this as an opportunity, others understand the absurdity of using climate change as a means to extract more fossil fuels and further change the climate. And this, alongside broader questions about mining, have shaped politics in the country this year.
In the spring, the governing Siumut party split, and its liberal coalition partners, the Democrats, resigned from the government, triggering a snap election in May.
The winner was the eco-socialist party Inuit Ataqatigiit. And in June, the new government banned all future oil and gas exploration from Greenland’s territory.
“The price of oil extraction is too high. This is based upon economic calculations, but considerations of the impact on climate and the environment also play a central role in the decision,” the government stated in July.
It’s not just oil and gas drilling that are contentious. When Donald Trump notoriously inquired about purchasing the island in 2019, he’d just had a briefing on its deposits of a number of minerals, many of which are likely to play a crucial role in the geopolitics of the coming decades. Among these are large quantities of uranium, and what are thought to be the world’s second biggest reserves of rare earth minerals – demand for which has soared in recent years because of their use in batteries for electric cars, computer chips and other tools of the high tech, low carbon economy.
Seen that way, Trump’s statement was probably less a random outburst and more a crude expression of the reality of Greenland’s role in the future of global geopolitics.
Biden, as ever, works in more subtle ways. In February, in discussion with tech giants like Alphabet (Google) and Facebook, he signed an executive order instigating a review of the supply chain of rare earth metals due to a global shortage and China’s dominance of the market. It seems implausible that the review won’t have produced significant discussion in US intelligence circles about the world’s largest deposits outside China, just a few hundred miles from Maine.
In March, the Polar Research and Policy Initiative expressed concerns about “the security implications of China’s near monopoly of rare earths and other minerals for the UK and its North American, European and Pacific allies”, especially given their significance to “strategically important sectors such as defence and security, green energy and technology”. The think tank called on the ‘five eyes’ intelligence alliance between the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada to team up with Greenland as part of a strategic resources partnership.
Greenland, says the website Mining Technology, “could be vital for tipping the scales in a trade war between global superpowers”.
In the midst of this global gallop for Greenland, with the world’s major powers, billionaire investors and intelligence agencies getting in on the act, the country has had some coverage in the global media of late.
What is often left out of the conversation, however, is the fascinating domestic dynamics among this Arctic island’s 57,000 people. Greenlanders’ struggle for sovereignty in the context of global capitalism, extractivism and climate collapse is an inspiring example of 21st-century indigenous resistance.
A young socialist indigenous climate leader
“There are two issues that have been important in this election campaign: people’s living conditions is one. And then there is our health and the environment,” Inuit Ataqatigiit leader Múte Bourup Egede told the Greenlandic public broadcaster KNR following his election victory in April.
Egede, 34, is the youngest prime minister Greenland’s had since it achieved a degree of home rule in the 1970s, and has led the democratic socialist and pro-independence party since 2018.
In the recent election, the party, known as IA, centred its campaign on its opposition to an international mining project by Greenland Minerals, an Australian-based and Chinese-owned company that is seeking to extract uranium and neodymium from the Kvanefjeld mine in the south of the country. Neodymium is a crucial component of a broad range of technologies, from some kinds of wind turbine to electric cars, because it can be used to make small, lightweight, but powerful and permanent magnets, while uranium is used for both nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
“We must listen to the voters who are worried. We say no to uranium mining,” Egede told the KNR. His party also promised to ban all explorations of radioactive deposits, and, while it does not oppose the mining of rare earth minerals in principle, it insists it must be better regulated.
Egede and the IA won 37% of the vote, ending the tenure of Siumut, the party which had been in power for most of the time since 1979. Siumut was supportive of the Kvanefjeld mining project, assisting Greenland Minerals to gain preliminary approval and ending a previous zero tolerance policy for uranium mining.
There is now a bill being debated in the Greenland parliament to ban the uranium mining project and all mining that contains radioactive by-products.
According to Mark Nuttall, an anthropologist at the University of Alberta and the head of the Climate and Society research programme at the Greenland Climate Research Centre:
“This [election] has sent shivers down the spine of many mining executives as to what kind of future mining would take place in Greenland.”
Under the direction of Egede, the IA-led government has also taken several significant steps in recent months to curb fossil fuel production.
Last week in Glasgow, Egede announced that Greenland will be joining the Paris Agreement. In 2016, under the leadership of Siumut, Greenland had invoked a territorial exemption to the climate agreement when Denmark joined.
Greenland, which is technically a self-governing territory of Denmark, claimed at the time that the country was dependent on its oil, gas and natural mineral reserves for its economy.
“The Arctic region is one of the areas on our planet where the effects of global warming are felt the most, and we believe that we must take responsibility collectively. That means that we, too, must contribute our share,” Egede said last week.
Egede’s government also pledged to develop its renewable energy capability, especially hydropower:
“Greenland has hydropower resources that exceed our country’s needs. These large hydropower resources can be utilised in collaboration with national and international investors who need large amounts of cheap and renewable energy.”
The Northwest Passage
The rush for the rare earth minerals vital to so many low carbon technologies isn’t the only way that climate change is moving the country from the periphery of global geopolitics to its core. When the huge container ship the Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal in March, the world was reminded how much of its trade passes through its two major transcontinental waterways – Suez and Panama.
As much of the Arctic Ocean becomes ice-free for greater parts of the year, new potential trade routes open up, most significantly, the Northwest Passage across the top of North America, and the Northern Sea Route, above Eurasia.
The vast majority of Greenland’s settlements – including the capital, Nuuk – lie on the west coast of the country, along the Labrador Sea and Baffin Bay. When travelling from Asia or western North America to Europe or the east coast of North America through the Northwest Passage, this is the final stretch, positioning Nuuk as a potential hub on a future major shipping route.
The struggle for sovereignty
Nearly 90% of the population of Greenland are indigenous Inuit people, who have inhabited the island for thousands of years. Although they’ve been colonised for the last thousand years by Nordic powers, they have maintained their own language and culture.
Norsemen first settled on the island in the tenth century, and in 1261 Greenland formally became part of Norway. In 1814 Greenland became a Danish territory – and in 1953 the island became fully integrated into the Danish state. (During World War II, when Denmark was conquered by the Nazis, Greenland was de facto under US control.)
“The official Danish view was that Greenland was actually a dependency; it wasn’t a colony in the sense of its colonies in the West Indies and other places,” Nuttall explained. This, he said, was “because of this historic view that Greenland had long been part of this Nordic Commonwealth from the Norse settlements of the tenth century onwards”.
But the Inuit people don’t always see it that way. During the Black Lives Matter global movement in 2020, younger Greenlanders, including the 21-year-old hip hop artist Josef Tarrak-Petrussen, called for the removal of Danish colonial statues in Nuuk.
Denmark finally granted home rule in 1979. And in 2008 Greenland voted in favour of the Self-Government Act, which transferred more power to the island’s government – and effectively marked the beginning of state formation.
This self rule act recognises Greenland as a nation with the right to independence if it chooses it. Currently Greenland has nearly full sovereignty, with the exception of the areas of foreign policy and defence. The Arctic island currently receives an annual grant of around $585m from Denmark.
In recent years, questions around sovereignty have in many ways defined the political and environmental policies of the island. Many of the political parties support independence.
However, this financial dependence on Denmark makes the prospect of full independence quite difficult: the grant accounts for nearly 20% of the island’s income, while fishing makes up around 90% of its exports.
In order to gain full autonomy from Denmark, Greenland needs to develop a self-sufficient economy. However, this likely requires the development of lucrative extractive industries which will deepen the island’s dependence on (foreign) international capital.
“If we go back ten years, mining was seen as the major way to [become politically independent], and there was great excitement,” said Nuttall.
However in recent years this attitude towards mining has changed considerably due to a host of factors including a downturn in global commodity markets, a greater emphasis on renewable energy and attention given to the climate crisis.
“Mining is going to be one pillar of an economic development strategy that will include other things such as the development of tourism, expansion of the fishing industry… and expanding renewables,” Nuttall explained.
The current government is now focusing on investments in the island’s enormous hydropower potential, which has the potential to grow as glaciers melt and which will allow a reduction in petrol imports, one of the country’s main expenses. Kalistat Lund, the minister for agriculture, self-sufficiency, energy and environment, stated that the government is “working to attract new investments for the large hydropower potential that we cannot exploit ourselves”.
The island is also currently expanding its airports and promoting tourism. Currently the only flights available to Greenland are from Reykjavik or Copenhagen.
Greenland often appears in discussions about climate change – usually in the context of films of starving polar bears, adorable Arctic foxes and rutting muskox; or melting glaciers diverting the Gulf Stream and raising global sea levels, flooding cities across the planet. Ice cores from Greenland, like those of Antarctica, help us understand historic variations in the composition of our atmosphere and in our climate, and have been vital for scientists’ understanding of the science of climate change.
These things are all true, and each Arctic species being pushed to extinction by the warming of the world is a tragedy. But what’s also true is that Greenland is home to tens of thousands of people, with their own history and culture, politics and organisations; a people who, after a thousand years of colonisation, are starting to assert both their independence from Denmark and their sovereignty in the face of the global market. And, who, along with other indigenous communities around the world, are starting to lead a fightback against the industrial, extractive capitalism that’s killing the planet.
Teaser photo credit: Nuuk, By Oliver Schauf – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10001052