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When Global Warming and Climate Change Are a Good Thing: Three Cheers for Melting Sea Ice

Headlines today are filled with depressing stories about Arctic sea ice. We’ve passed that point in September where the ice traditionally reaches its minimum size, and we’ve set yet another record. Current melting is unprecedented in about 1,500 years. NPR reports that the ice is melting faster than models that predict it will be completely gone by 2050. One scientist told the Guardian that he predicts the ice could be completely gone in three or four years. At first glance, this seems like vindication for Al Gore and other climate alarmists.

On the other hand, far fewer news agencies are reporting that Antarctic ice has set another record—a good one. For the past several decades, Antarctic ice has been increasing and this year is no exception. Climate skeptics have been pointing to this phenomenon as vindication, but their conclusion is too hasty. There are multiple reasons why climate models have predicted that Antarctic ice would be less vulnerable than Arctic ice, including (ironically) the hole in the ozone layer. As is often the case, the truth is in the middle. The scientific consensus that the earth has been warming and humans are partly responsible is more solid than ever, but long-term predictions and damage estimates vary widely. Yet it’s still dishonest to report on the arctic without mentioning the Antarctic, and the difference is more than penguins versus polar bears.

From a sea level perspective, there’s a huge difference. Because Arctic ice floats in the ocean, melting arctic ice is not a significant contributor to sea level rises. (About 90% of the ice is underwater, but that’s because ice is only about 90% as dense as water. Because the proportion of the ice that floats is determined by the density of the ice, the sea level impact of melting ice will be neutral wherever ice floats freely in the water.) The Antarctic, on the other hand, contains both land ice and sea ice. If land ice melts or falls into the sea, that will raise sea levels. It’s the difference between letting the ice in your drink melt and dropping more ice in.

There are also substantial economic reasons why the melting of Arctic ice (unlike Antarctic ice) is actually a good thing. Centuries ago, explorers looked for the fabled Northwest Passage, and due to climate change that passage is now navigable for an expanding window of time during the summer. So far, traffic is light, but the development of new ships and an infrastructure race between Canada and Russia could increase that traffic. It will never exceed the volume of the Suez Canal, but for many ships passing north of the American continent could shave weeks and thousands of miles off their trips. Locked under the Arctic ice is a tremendous amount of resources—about 22% of the world’s hydrocarbons. Fortunately, there is more natural gas than oil. Although natural gas is harder to transport over long distances, research is making it easier to transport and natural gas is a far more environmentally friendly fuel. The U.S. is currently undergoing an energy transition towards natural gas, and arctic resources could play a role, or be exported to other countries. Unfortunately, multiple parties currently dispute the Arctic. Depending on how political events play out, Russia could end up controlling a substantial share of resources (it did, after all, plant a flag under the Arctic) or those resources could weaken Russia’s economic grip over much of Europe. (Russia has previously used its natural gas supply as a political weapon.) However, regardless of how equitably the pie is divided, a larger pie is always good news. The U.S. should push for a good deal in the Arctic, but even a bad deal is better than none.

Climate models are notoriously finicky, so it’s hard to say what the future of the Arctic is and what the Arctic means for other problems caused by global warming. But if current trends continue, we should be thankful that the Arctic is shrinking and the Antarctic is expanding. Just as it is wrong to ignore and fail to plan for the negative impacts of global warming, we should expect our government to plan to exploit the positive advantages of global warming, even as (or if) we act to substantially mitigate it. One thing the United States can do in the short term is sign the Law of the Sea treaty, since America’s current status limits its ability to bargain over future rights to sea-lanes like those in the Arctic. Environmentalists may fret about polar bears, but the costs of relocating and saving them would be miniscule compared to the economic gains we stand to gain from the Arctic.

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