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Drilling deep mistakes in the Arctic

Nuuk is a long way from my hometown of Durban, and the Arctic is a long way for an African to come to campaign about climate change. Yet, here I sit, in a jail cell, with my colleague Ulvar Arnkvaern, in the ‘Institution’, a prison in Greenland’s capital. I sit here for breaching an exclusion zone and climbing aboard a dangerous deep water drilling rig some 120km off Greenland’s coast.

With me I carried the signatures of some 50 000 people who are demanding that the oil rigs operators Cairn Energy publish its ‘oil spill response plan’. I also wanted to personally call for drilling to stop immediately. Since my arrest I am told over 20 000 more people have gone to the Greenpeace website and added their names to the growing petition.

I came in defence of the fragile Arctic environment. I became the 22nd Greenpeace activist who in the last few weeks has volunteered to climb the rig in the middle of the Arctic. I came to add my body to the protest and my voice to the call for sanity and an end to dangerous deep water oil drilling in the Arctic. I became the 22nd activist to be arrested and held in a Greenlandic cell.

How can it be that in the wake of the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil spill disaster an oil company can be allowed to drill at a similar depth in the Arctic, where any clean up operation would be all but impossible. Given the events of the Gulf of Mexico blow-out it would be logical that greater transparency and public scrutiny would be needed, not less or none.

The reason for Cairn’s secrecy is clear, a clean up would be impossible, the ecosystem would be decimated, Greenland’s fisheries would be destroyed and the $10-billion Cairn oil company would be bankrupt: not a good look at the start of an oil rush, and a poor signal to the venture capitalists who hope to turn a big profit.

All of the above is more than enough reason to say no to deep water oil drilling in the Arctic. But, there are many more reasons to say no to Arctic drilling and to call for the world to go beyond oil.

Fossil fuel burning is altering our climate and melting the Arctic sea ice, changing the nature of one of the remotest places on earth, and one of the most hostile. The radically reducing ‘summer sea’ ice is a stark warning of a warming world. Yet the oil industry and the politicians who are beholden to it are treating the warning as an invitation to ‘drill baby drill!’

Climate change is already wreaking havoc around the world, it is hitting the poorest hardest and fastest. The Arctic is not only a victim of the change but in turn will likely reflect and magnify that change.

As an African I care about what’s happening in the Arctic in part because scientists say that the unprecedented warming up here could have grave knock-on consequences for vulnerable people across the world. A warming Arctic could dramatically change weather patterns many thousands of miles away.

At some point we have to draw a line and say: no more, and I say we draw that line here and now in the Arctic ice. I say we draw it in the world’s rainforests. I say we draw it in the wake of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, I say we draw it when someone proposes wasting billions on new fossil fuel stations when they should be investing in energy efficiency and clean, safe and secure renewable energy sources.

As I sit in jail, a Cairns dangerous drilling rig gets closer and closer to the oil and gas it is looking for, closer and closer to the spill zone, where a deep water blow-out could happen. Yet we are no closer to seeing their secret clean up plan.

As they drill deeper and deeper under the Arctic the world spins closer and closer to a climate tipping point, a point of no return in which our fossil fuel burning creates climate chaos, propelling extreme weather events, sea level rise, hunger and conflict.

Nature has presented us with warning and with that warning comes a test. An intelligence test, one we cannot afford to fail. How we respond here and now will decide what kind of world we are going to live in and what kind of world we will pass on to our children….

My stay in Nuuk will be a short one, soon I am likely to be set free and deported. But, I will think of Nuuk and the lesson of the metaphor of deep drilling in the Arctic when I return home to Durban in November. When I lobby and demand a fair, ambitious and legally binding agreement at the 17th annual United Nations meeting designed to save the climate.

Let’s not be stupid, let’s say no to Arctic oil and yes to a world free of the threat of catastrophic climate change.

Kumi Naidoo is executive director of Greenpeace International.

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Kumi Naidoo
Kumi Naidoo is the Global Ambassador for Africans Rising for Justice, Peace and Dignity. He was previously the Secretary General of Amnesty International and the International Executive Director of Greenpeace.

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