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A Gassy Greenland?

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View Sam Edmondson's blog posts
16 September 2009, 1:19 PM
Development plans may boost carbon dioxide emissions of the glaciated island
Greenland's Sondrestrom Glacier. Photo: NASA/Roger Chao

As I noted in a previous post, the alarming pace of glacial retreats across the globe is an eye-opening indication that climate change is rapidly altering our planet. Look no further than the ironically named Greenland for evidence.

Because Greenland is an epicenter of climate change, some are decrying plans made by the country's new prime minister, Kuupik Kleist, to attract industry. It seems inconceivable that a country ravaged by climate change would fuel the scourge.

To be sure, a significant increase in any nation's output of CO2 is a cause for concern and debate. And the aspirations of Greenland's P.M. exemplify a critical issue in the international debate on climate change, that being the tension between developed and undeveloped—or in some cases, rapidly developing—nations. We won't crawl down that rabbit hole now, but suffice it to say, there are some large issues at play here.

This story reads differently with the addition of some much-needed perspective. Kleist's peacock strut for industry could increase Greenland's CO2 emissions from 650,000 to 10 million tons per year, no doubt a very large change. But consider that the 50 worst-polluting coal-fired plants in the U.S. each emitted more than that in 2006, and some more than twice that amount. It would take a more-polluting Greenland 78 years to match the cumulative CO2 emissions of these power plants in just one year (about 782 million tons in 2006).

If Kleist's plans do come to fruition, it's true that the per capita CO2 emissions of Greenlanders will dramatically exceed those of U.S. citizens. But Greenland is a country of fewer than 60,000 people, the size of a very small city in the United States. So the per capita emissions comparison is as much a red herring as the welcoming landscape that the name "Greenland" suggests.

You can go to Greenland to see climate change in action, but Greenland's development plans—debateable though they are—just won't be a significant part of what's driving it. A continued, large-scale reliance on coal-fired power in the United States and abroad is the real threat.

Nothing ironic about the name Greenland. Settlers first arrived there during a brief inter-glacial melt. And 20 or 50 years from now, it will be green again, with possibly some of the best farm or at least pasture land on the planet. The rest of the world will suffer terribly from climate change, but Greenland's future is bright.

and, if history is any guide, after that warm interlude, greenland will again become a mostly frozen waste land leaving the settlers frantically scrambling to find a way to warmer climes----

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