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Provocative about Global Warming

Valsson, Trausti. 2006. How the World Will Change With Global Warming. Reykjavik: University of Iceland Press. 168 pp.

This book has an initially provocative message for everyone concerned for the future of the north. In this time of bad news about climate change, Trausti Valsson wants us to understand, in a contrarian way, his argument that "a warm Arctic is a new Paradise." His position is earnest; it reflects his passion for his native Iceland and its style is influenced by his long career in environmental planning.

Valsson, Professor of Planning at the University of Iceland, wants to influence our idea of the north's future. To do that, he presents the Arctic from many sides, including a sketch of its natural and human history and its relation to the rest of the planet. This would, for the uninitiated, make it a good handbook on the Arctic, if we could recommend it with less caution. The author admits that the Arctic is not easy to understand, and that its ecosystems and human societies are interwoven in complex ways. Still, he argues, even though the local effects of climate change will vary, there will be more gain than pain and the north as a whole will be a "winner." It will be a great magnet for those fleeing the heat in the south, so northerners should see the opportunity to improve our democracies and infrastructure on the "New Northern Frontier."

As one reads, the initial provocation shifts to impatience, and one seeks to understand why. There are lots of facts, photos and maps and no absence of references; he ranges from fishing fleets to altered global transportation infrastruc-ture, from the effects of the Cold War to the geopolitical implications of ice-free northern sea routes. Even when the reader is sympathetic to the positive slant on climate change, a gnawing resistance to the text grows stronger as that line is pursued. All of those things are on the drawing board, so what's the rub?

The danger is of being seduced into accepting the details of what at first are presented as only generalizations. This gives it an air of authority, implying, "This is the way it's going to be," and leaving little room for alternative scenarios. It would be refreshing to read, instead, "This is the way it could be." Space permits only one example here. Early in Chapter 3, he states, "In the following sections we will see how a new system of spatial organization is emerging. The reason for this is that global warming will make the Arctic more liveable. . ." (p. 59). That is stated as a certainty, but it will seem like a generality as the details emerge. Ten pages later, in Section 3 of the same chapter, the certainties are piling up, and just one of them reads, "As the North continues to warm it will, as a result, become spatially stronger. The import-ance of the South, in contrast, will weaken as, in many areas, it becomes undesirably hot for human activities" (p. 69). The entire chapter, and indeed most of the rest of the book, reads that way, with few cracks of doubt to disturb an unsuspecting reader.

Valsson argues that mitigation will probably fail, and even if it is successful, we will have a few degrees of average temperature change to cope with first. Whatever the merits of those claims, it is unfortunate that their packaging distracts the reader from more focused reflection on the author's overall and, this reviewer believes, genuine concerns. Valsonn's conclusion is straightforward: the need for adaptation is unavoidable, and the north will probably "benefit," at least in some ways.

The definition of "benefit," however, implies seeing that we need to benefit the rest of the world, too. In all of this, the Nordic countries could provide something unique for the future of humanity. It is time then for some serious planning.

Book review, by Richard Langlais, previous Senior Research Fellow at Nordregio