Are Norwegians happy, but stupid?
As a Norwegian, I admit to being kind of proud to see Norway at the top of the UN’s latest global happiness index. And the ranking makes sense: We’re blessed with snow, water, and mountains, effective public education and health care systems, plentiful jobs in a well-regulated economy, and a free and open democracy not too hobbled by fake news or Trumpian bluster.
However, it seems our beautiful country has become complacent in its happiness. In spite of the climate crisis and the ever-growing need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, last year the Norwegian government—for the first time in 20 years—opened up a new oil frontier in the melting and vulnerable Barents Sea above the Arctic Circle. And last month, the government announced yet another push for Arctic oil, inviting oil companies to bid for 93 new licenses.
The happy Norwegian government knows that burning oil causes climate change. They know there’s already more oil in existing fields than we can afford to burn. They know that burning oil melts Arctic ice and fuels extreme weather events like typhoons and droughts, causing immense suffering around the world.
Unfortunately, happy Norway has become a nation of petroholics. We tend to believe that our oil is so much cleaner than all other oil on the planet. Therefore, we believe that new, Norwegian Arctic oil will be good for the climate. While we signed and ratified the Paris Agreement before almost anyone else, we don’t think that should have any consequences for our quest for more Arctic extraction.
This happy logic has also been shaped by the fact that most Norwegians don’t think we can do well in other industries—an idea that is quite broadly shared, even though only 10% of the workforce is in the oil sector, and Norway was already an advanced welfare state in 1968 when we first struck oil.
Luckily, a new movement to challenge these ideas is growing. Unions, environmentalists, and religious leaders have formed an alliance to get Norway out of its oil addiction before it is too late. Launched in 2013, the “Bridge to the Future” movement could become a forceful player in the upcoming elections in September. The alliance demands a halt to new oil fields and a controlled phase-out of the oil industry, combined with efforts to ramp up green jobs, a fossil-free investment strategy for the Norwegian Oil Fund, and radically bigger emission cuts.
As International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) General Secretary Sharan Burrow pointed out, in her address to the alliance’s annual gathering in Oslo two years ago, there are no jobs on a dead planet. However, new industries don’t appear out of nowhere either—particularly not in a nation that has been swimming in oil wealth and would like to keep swimming. That’s why we need fierce movement pressure and robust political efforts to create new jobs. All of this will take time, but the Leap Manifesto has been a big inspiration.
As we help to build this new movement, environmentalists are also mobilizing to stop the new round of oil drilling. Statoil plans to drill 5 new wells in the Barents Sea this summer, several of them way too close to sensitive areas like the marginal ice zone and Bear Island’s impressive bird cliffs.
As we see it, new oil drilling in the Barents Sea is not only immoral, but also a violation of Article 112 of the Norwegian constitution, which says that the State shall protect the right of future generations to a safe and healthy environment. With help from our friends Nature and Youth, we have launched a legal challenge, and will meet the Norwegian government in the Oslo District Court in November. (Last month, British actress and Greenpeace activist Emma Thompson backed the lawsuit on Skavlan, the biggest talk show in Norway and Sweden. The interview can be seen here.)
The science is clear: To meet the Paris goals, we have to keep 80 percent of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground. That must be understood as prohibiting the leasing of any new oilfields, and certainly not in the vulnerable Arctic. When politicians refuse to accept this fact, our hope is that the courts can be bold enough, as our Constitution requires.
And recent climate victories in court, from the Netherlands to South Africa and Austria, give me confidence that they can. We believe this lawsuit—together with the growing wave of climate cases around the world—has the potential to become a rallying point for people resisting fossil fuel exploration everywhere. This is about holding back the oil industry at the final frontier, and holding governments accountable for their climate pledges.
The more global pressure that social movements can put on Norway, the more likely it is that the judge on the case will be brave enough to rule in our favor. So please, spread the message about the lawsuit against Arctic oil, engage your friends, challenge any Norwegian you meet along the way, and join thousands of others in telling Norway to take the climate crisis seriously.