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The Greenlandic paradox

Climate changes are bringing both economic potential and major problems to Greenland, which has only limited opportunities to influence developments itself.
Lars Jensen
Photo: Uffe Weng

Greenland is one of the places on the planet, where climate change is most obvious. The ice cap is melting. Climate change is a global challenge, but there are nuances to the climate changes and in Greenland, they may not all be entirely negative.

As part of a major international research project, Associate Professor Lars Jensen and his colleagues, PhD Fellow Astrid Andersen and Associate Professor Kirsten Hvenegård-Lassen from Roskilde University, have investigated how climate change and tourism interact in Greenland.

Tourists visit Greenland to witness the climate changes for themselves, but when they are standing in Ilulissat, for example, and watch enormous icebergs break off the glacier and slip into the water, this in itself is not proof of climate change.

"They are actually witnessing a natural phenomenon, since glaciers have always produced icebergs. The impacts of climate change can be seen if we look at them over a number of decades, but you cannot see them while you are standing there. A guide can talk about climate change, but when the tourists look at the glacier, they cannot see that it is calving icebergs 80-100 kilometres further into the fjord than previously, and they cannot see that the acceleration is increasing,” says Lars Jensen.

This doesn’t mean that climate tourism has no effect.

"Tourists who have watched the glacier calve in Ilulissat, are probably more vividly aware of climate change when they return home, than when they left. It is informative adventure tourism. The tourists acquire some stories about climate change, and they thus become like ambassadors, who can spread the message that it is essential to do something about climate change. They may well have been told more about climate change than they were actually able to see, but they have been told in exactly the right place,” he explains.

But the increase in the numbers of climate tourists can also have negative effects as a result of the cruise ships sailing into waters that are highly vulnerable to pollution. Furthermore, the economic benefits may not be as great as one might expect. Lars Jensen points out that the cruise trips are often all-inclusive, and opportunities for shopping are also limited in many of the towns in Greenland.

"We might expect a positive effect when cruise ships call at small coastal towns in Greenland, because tourism tends to boost the economy. But not all studies show that effect from tourism. Some studies show that tourism does not have a positive impact. The question is, how much money is actually spent in the local village where the ship docks?,” he says.

Both opportunities and problems

Overall, there are many paradoxes in the relationship between Greenland and climate change, for although climate change may look bleak at the global level, if we look at Greenland in isolation, the outlook is not exclusively negative, even though the changes are undoubtedly having an impact.

For example, the Greenland landmass is rising as the ice melts, because the ice is so heavy. It also means that it will be possible in future to extract resources in places where it would have been impossible before. Greenland may also become a hub for container traffic if the Northwest Passage along the northern coast of North America remains free of ice for longer periods than previously, as this navigation route would then become more viable and more attractive.

“Paradoxically, climate change will create some economic opportunities for Greenland, but there will also be some serious problems when the traditional fishing and hunting methods are challenged. The local fishermen and hunters are heavily dependent on being able to read the ice and the landscape, but as the climate changes, they may no longer be able to rely on their skills. The changes are beginning to undermine the hunting and fishing that constitutes the traditional basis for society in Greenland”, explains Lars Jensen.

Politics in Greenland also holds some contradictions, because although climate change is evident in Greenland, and even though it is having a direct impact on the country, the scope for action by the Greenland population is extremely limited.

"Emissions of CO2 originate from all sorts of other places except the Arctic, so what can Greenland really do? If the population of Greenland refrained from burning even a single gram of coal, it would have no impact whatsoever on this issue", says Lars Jensen and continues:

"Climate change is something that is happening to them rather than something that is happening because of them. But if you talk to politicians in Greenland, they have an idea that they have an obligation to help parts of the world, even if they are distant. They have a global outlook, and that in itself is impressive for a “small” country with 56,000 inhabitants,” he feels.

Provides Denmark with a seat at the table

Greenland has self-government, but in reality it is subject to Denmark in the Danish Realm. This gives Denmark a seat at the table with the big players in the region, for example as a member of the Arctic Council.

The relationship between Denmark and Greenland is a subject that Lars Jensen has researched.

"Denmark's position is special because of Greenland. If Greenland was not part of the Danish Realm, then Denmark would simply not be present in the Arctic. Environmental issues are discussed locally in Greenland, but there is also a discussion in the Danish Realm. But what is the Danish Realm really? For example, Denmark has the resources to conduct climate change studies in Greenland, but that is something that Greenland would find difficult to do on its own, because Greenland simply does not have the resources. When I talk about conditions in Greenland, I am hopefully speaking as a reflective Danish researcher,” he explains.

Roskilde University has been working on the Arctic research project with two universities in Leeds in the UK, UIT - the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø, and the University of Iceland in Reykjavik.