Greenland Rising

Global warming isn't bad news for everybody. In Greenland, the big melt could mean a flood of new revenue from mineral and oil deposits— previously trapped under ice. Flush with prospects, the locals are talking about making a final break from their benevolent colonizer, Denmark. Call it the Thaw Revolution.

The entrance to Greenland's Black Angel Mine     Photo: photograph by McKenzie Funk

Map by Andrew Berry)

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FIVE YEARS AGO, after Mininnguaq Kleist became Greenland's national badminton champion but before he officially became a philosopher, well before he took the helm at the Office of Self-Governance, he discovered secession theory: the study of whether one country has, or doesn't have, the moral right to break free from another. At the time, he was a master's candidate without a thesis topic. He'd been frantically searching for six months, and the problem was getting almost as bad as his first philosophical crisis, when he'd tried to apply the Aristotelian ideal of the good life to every little thing in his real life and ended up paralyzed, staring into a theoretical abyss. Mininn­guaq's discovery of secession theory, like his discovery that not every action can be moral, was a revelation.

"I found arguments that are never used up here," he says. Over the next year he wrote his thesis, "Greenlandic Autonomy or Secession: Philosophical Considerations," at his university in Denmark, the colonial power that has ruled Greenland for nearly 300 years. He wrote it in Danish, and he pushed arguments that beat back the colonizers using their own rules, even as they ran slightly counter to those laid out in the nineties by the father of modern secession theory, Duke University philosopher Allen Buchanan.

"According to him, you have to be wronged to justify it," Mininnguaq says. "Denmark has to wrong Greenland in a really bad way before we break away. I don't agree with that part. Sometimes you have to view this as a marriage: adults, consenting people, divorcing of their own free will."

I first meet up with Mininnguaq in the Kangerlussuaq airport, a building on the tundra of western Greenland that feels like a ski lodge in the Alps: lounge chairs, huge windows, a cafeteria with trays, rich tourists in Gore-Tex. Mininnguaq lopes in with a badminton friend, Kim, a handsome Dane with an iPhone who happened to be on his inbound flight, and we sit in the cafeteria and reminisce about their sporting years. "He always beat me," Mininnguaq says. "Except in our last match."

Among his friends, Mininnguaq goes by "Minik." He's 35. He wears horn-rimmed glasses "my old-school Ray-Bans," he calls them and brown hipster kicks with thick blue laces. He has black hair and aquiline good looks that locked up the teenage-girl vote during his one, failed bid for political office, in 2007, when he ran to represent Greenland in the Danish parliament. He lives in a trendy part of Nuuk, Greenland's 15,000-person capital city, where he recently blew thousands of Danish kroner on a tube stereo system. Friends come over and they all just sit there and listen to it. It sounds awesome.

To its natives, Greenland now officially goes by the name Kalaallit Nunaat "the Land of the People." As a colony, it's been part of Denmark since 1721, when Lutheran missionary Hans Egede showed up and started saving souls. The first Danes taught the Inuit that Hell was very hot rather than very cold. They taught that communal living shared food, shared hunting trips, shared wives was sinful. They taught that rocks and birds were not endowed with spirits. Greenlanders had no bread or concept of bread, so Egede translated another pillar of Western belief the Lord's Prayer to fit Greenlandic reality. "Give us this day our daily harbor seal," they prayed.After 290 years, Greenland is oddly, lopsidedly modern Scandinavian by design but not always by nature. Kim, whose wealthy family runs an electronics chain in Nuuk, is on his way to mainland Europe, where he went only a few months ago, hanging out at the Cannes Film Festival on Russian yachts with beds that rotated 360 degrees "just for the views," he marvels. Minik, meanwhile, is heading up the west-central coast to Upernavik, a thousand-person town with no sewage system, where, several mornings a week, the streets are lined with yellow bags of excrement waiting to be picked up by sanitation teams.

Upernavik is the first stop on the second leg of a road show led by the Office of Self-Governance, a department local authorities set up at the end of 2007 to bring independence or at least the idea of it to the people. It's now early September 2008, and by November 25 he wants to have reached nearly all of Greenland: 57,000 people spread out in 57 villages and 18 towns across an area of 836,000 square miles, three times the size of Texas and 50 times the size of mainland Denmark. November 25 is the date of an island-wide vote, a referendum on divorce from Denmark. If it passes, then on June 21, 2009, the summer solstice, Greenland will wake up to a new reality. Not secession, exactly, but a big step in that direction.

In chemistry, there's the concept of activation energy: Add heat, get a reaction. In Greenland, there's the reality of global warming: Add heat, get an independence movement. Warming is melting Greenland's ice, which is extending its shipping season and revealing massive oil and mineral deposits, which is making possible a mining boom and the royalties that go with it, which is convincing Greenland's people that eventually they may not need the $600 million in annual subsidies they get from Denmark more than $10,000 a person. Which is convincing Greenlanders that soon they may not need Denmark at all.

Climate change means oil finds and zinc mines and also better fishing: cod, herring, halibut, and haddock migrating north as the ocean warms. It means disaster tourists: people coming to see glaciers slide into the sea. (Since 2004, cruise-ship arrivals have jumped 250 percent.) It means farming: potatoes and broccoli and carrots growing where they didn't grow before, more grass for more sheep. It means gushing rivers: an endless supply of freshwater that Greenland proposes to sell to a thirsty world.

Of course, it also means doom for distant countries like Tuvalu and Bangladesh, which may go under because of Greenland's melting ice cap. The cap covers 81 percent of the island, and if it melts entirely something that's unlikely to happen before the end of this century global sea levels could jump 20 feet. Since 2003, the cap has shrunk by more than a million tons, so much that the underlying bedrock rises four centimeters each year, like a ship slowly unweighted of its cargo. The land is rising faster than the sea.

It is climate's role in the independence movement the possibility that people could be set free by embracing a crisis, that for all the countries destroyed by global warming, one will be created that's brought me to Kangerlussuaq. Before we board our next flight, Minik introduces me to a pack of Greenlandic politicians, two women and three men who are part of his revolutionary road trip. They wear backpacks and street clothes: jeans, fleece, tennis shoes. One man carries a video camera. I wonder, for a moment, if I'm staring at people for whom global warming serves a higher good.

ON DAY SEVEN of the tour, after seven meetings in seven villages and towns, the politicians relax in a government guesthouse outside the Qaarsut airport, waiting to go home. The flight isn't until 4:30 p.m., and we have the entire day off. There's a buffet with muesli, yogurt, and fresh-baked bread. The TV is on; we pull out cell phones and laptops and flip through the newspaper. Then the premier walks in and announces that a hunter's boat is ready to take us on a quick visit to the village of Niaqornat, population 68, more than an hour up the Nuussuaq Peninsula. Going out again is masochism. Only Minik and I agree to join him.

The open boat is maybe 15 feet long. We hop in at a gravelly beach below the airstrip, timing the surf so our feet don't get wet. Minik puts his laptop in a plastic bag. He and I keep low out of the biting wind, but the premier, wearing jeans, thin gloves, and a baseball cap, stands in the back of the boat, watching the coastline zip by.

The water is smooth, and there are beaches the whole way; above them, slopes rise steeply to 6,000-foot summits already covered in snow. We pass seals and house-size icebergs and finally loop into Niaqornat's natural harbor. The village is stunning, on a spit of low-lying land between an oceanside turret of rock and the white peaks of the peninsula. There are bright wooden houses but no cars. There are racks where villagers are drying junk fish for the sled dogs and strips of halibut and seal for themselves. Open boats and icebergs share the harbor. The sun is shining. It is, for once, the Greenland of my imagination and perhaps that of the premier's as well.

The meeting is held in the schoolhouse, and a quarter of Niaqornat shows up, if you count the baby. To make a projector screen, they flip a big map of Greenland and hang it over the blackboard. Above the map are classroom diagrams depicting everyday items and their Danish names: balloon, spaghetti, anorak, radio, king, pizza, cigarette. As the premier talks, I check out a poster showing eight local whale species and their specs: weight, top speed, length, amount of time they can hold their breath, etc. A man in a T-shirt that reads deep sea shark fishing asks about money, and Minik flips through some slides I haven't seen before: projections of mineral revenues skyrocketing into the future. One shows the oil blocks that Greenland has already sold to foreign firms. They're just on the other side of the peninsula.

We have lunch in the home of one of the premier's supporters, a great hunter whose walls are decorated with narwhal tusks and walrus skulls and pictures of dead polar bears. He lays out dried, jerky-like whale meat, then serves us cold narwhal skin, which his daughters and the premier slice into chewable chunks. His CD collection and computer are in the corner, along with his daughter's pet gerbil. His teenage son walks in with a premade sandwich and sticks it in the microwave. The premier gorges on narwhal. "If we did not eat what the sea gives us," he says, "we would not be here." When we reach the dock to meet our boat, the village has gathered to see us off, and someone has distributed little Greenlandic flags, which the citizens wave back and forth until we're out of view.

A few months from now, Niaqornat will become one of a handful of villages to vote 100 percent in favor of self-governance. The referendum will pass by 75.5 percent across Greenland, but in tiny Niaqornat, there will be no doubters. Just in time for the solstice, at the start of this new era, the premier will lose his job to Kuupik Kleist. This will only accelerate the drive toward independence: Kleist's party wants it all the more, and even his partner in the new governing coalition, Jens B. Fredriksen, will be stirred to patriotism.

"We have one goal," he tells reporters. "The ultimate independence of our country."

EARLY IN OUR TOUR, Minik worried that he was forgetting much of the philosophy he'd studied. "I've been too much into politics," he told me. But during our last conversation, he becomes a philosopher again, pondering not just the morality of secession but the means to this end. We're in Ilulissat, Greenland's big tourist town, where we have a final layover. Nearby is the fastest-sliding glacier in the Northern Hemisphere, Sermeq Kujalleq, which spits 35 trillion liters of ice into Disko Bay every year.

I spend the early evening on the boardwalk of the Hotel Arctic, a cliffside landmark that happens to be hosting the Nordic Council's Common Concern for the Arctic conference: European dignitaries in nice suits fretting abstractly about the warming north. Peering into a bay full of icebergs at sunset, I hear one of them chat up an attractive blonde by rattling off facts about the coming doomsday. His tone is solemn, his voice almost a whisper. "I don't mean to scare you," he murmurs. It's the first time I've heard someone try to use climate change to get someone else into bed. "I really don't mean to scare you," he says again. She doesn't look scared at all.Upstairs, Minik and I order hamburgers and stare at the lights of Ilulissat. We contemplate the future. "It's so strange," Minik says. "The more the ice cap melts, the more Greenland will rise. These other countries are sinking, and Greenland is rising. It is literally rising." Below us, the dignitaries file into their banquet. "We know Black Angel was really bad for the environment the first time," Minik continues. "It ruined the fjord. Is it OK to ruin three or four fjords in order to build the country? I hate to even think this, but we have a lot of fjords. I don't know. That'd be utilitarian philosophy, wouldn't it?"

He shakes his head. "We're very aware that we'll cause more climate change by drilling for oil," he says. "But should we not? Should we not when it can buy us our independence?" I look at him. I can see he doesn't really know the answer, either.

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