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Published: Scotland on Sunday (Review) 14 March 2010

Charles Emmerson
Bodley Head, £20

IT’S easy to romanticise the Arctic, and over the years plenty of authors have. Oddly though, given the region’s increasing geopolitical significance, it’s rare to find books that treat it as something other than a chilly adventure playground or an excuse for reams of purple prose. Thank goodness, then, for Charles Emmerson. In this book he looks at how the frozen north has played a key role in world affairs in the past and how it could prove more important in the years to come.

He devotes the first section of the book to “Visions” of the region on the grounds that to understand how today’s politicians treat the place, you must first understand their contrasting perceptions of it. “While in the United States the Arctic is an Alaskan afterthought,” he writes, “in Russia it is considered a fundamental part of national identity and a repository of national power.”

The rest of the book is divided into four further chapters: “Power”, “Nature”, “Riches” and “Freedom”. In the first, Emmerson looks at how the great powers carved up the Arctic in the 19th century and how it became a theatre of hot and cold warfare in the 20th. In the current century, he concludes, security challenges in the Arctic will be “more about surveillance and control” and Arctic states are re-tooling accordingly.

In “Nature” he turns his attention to climate change and probable consequences: on a micro scale, the loss of “life ways” for indigenous communities; on a macro scale, the decline of boreal forests and increased opportunities for international shipping.

When it comes to exploiting the oil and gas reserves of the Arctic, the Russians currently seem to be holding the best cards, but according to Emmerson their future pre-eminence as a global fuel supplier will depend on how much they are able to do without the technical savvy of western multinationals in such a harsh environment. In 2006, Gazprom announced plans to develop the massive Shtokman field north of the Kola Peninsular all on its own, but it later had to enlist the help – and expertise – of Total of France and StatoilHydro of Norway.

In “Freedom”, Emmerson looks at two small Arctic nations, Greenland and Iceland, the former taking its first tentative steps towards independence, the latter stung by the global recession and seeking security in the bosom of the EU. And then finally, in the “Epilogue”, he allows himself a solitary, indulgent passage of purple prose – although, in keeping with his ruthlessly efficient writing style, even this is harnessed to help make a point.

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