'The New North - the world in 2050' book review

Climate Change is gathering pace and causing major changes to our planet, heating it up, year after year. This warming isn't uniform - some areas aren't warming at all - but the Arctic is warming the most of all. This change is not only affecting the wildlife and lives of the indigenous people of that area, it is also opening up brand new oil and gas fields that can now be economically exploited. As its permafrost melts - an effect that could release apocalyptic amounts of methane and CO2 as microbes digest the defrosted plant matter - governments, corporations and indigenous communities are frantically making plans to manage the new resources now opening up to access in this remote and relatively inaccessible region of the world.

In 'The New North - the world in 2050', Laurence C. Smith reports on this topic with a wealth of solid evidence and researched information, but in a strangely unfocused way. In places, he approaches the topic from a personal perspective, making it the book a little less dry, but he seems less concerned about the environmental effects of the burst of new mining and oil drilling and more about the economic opportunities. For example, he comments several times that he's going to get shares in some of the commercial companies of the Far North to give himself a good retirement fund. This lack of an emotional message does mean the book stays calmly objective but I have to admit that I would have preferred a more empathic description of how the Arctic is being changed. There are moments when Smith evocatively describes the effect on the area of the new mining, for example, he describes the hellish world of tar sands extraction as akin to 'Tolkien's land of Mordor' but they are few and far between.

The strangest thing, for me, about the book is that it's called 'The New North - the world in 2050'. A more accurate title would be 'Current trends in Arctic and sub-arctic politics and commerce'. Smith never sets out what he thinks will happen by describing the Arctic region at certain dates. Instead, he simply describes how it is now and how that's changed from the past. This approach means Smith won't be ridiculed for making wild projections but it also means readers have to work out themselves how things will turn out, which kind of defeats the purpose of the book. By comparison, Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer does extrapolate and paint a detailed picture of how things will develop, in key stages. The future is highly unlikely to turn out exactly as 'Climate Wars' describes, but when a book is well researched and logical, its predictions are worth reading.

Overall, I can only partially recommend 'The New North - the world in 2050'. It's thorough and solid research, but its purpose is nebulous. Smith himself admits that he started the project with the aim of writing about climate change in the Arctic but abandoned the idea when it was clear the people he met in the Arctic weren't so much lamenting the climate changes but instead campaigning pragmatically to get their share of the new opportunities and wealth. In this light, climate change stops being a disaster and more an entrepreneurial opportunity. If you don't mind that view and would like a good grounding in the new economics of the Arctic, definitely read Smith's book. If you'd prefer to read a well-researched prediction piece describing in detail what could probably happen globally, with a strong sentiment that we must stop it coming about as soon as we can, read Climate Wars.

Smith ends his book by asking 'What kind of a world do we want?' The facts in his book, and others, make it clear that our population is ballooning, our climate is hotting up with multiple catastrophic results, the ecosphere of our planet is going into meltdown and some people seem more concerned about profit opportunities and share price than the end of the world as we know it. I guess the answer would therefore be 'Not that one!'