By: Anneka Williams
Time and again we’ve seen political probity take a nosedive as incumbents pander to audiences with vastly different environmental value systems in attempts to maintain power. What will Borgen: Power & Glory’s Nyborg do when confronted with the tensions between environmentalism, economic gain, political power, and climate change in the context of oil development in the Arctic?
I spent the last year living in Copenhagen less than a mile from the famed Christiansborg Castle, the site of the much-acclaimed political drama ‘Borgen.’ As someone who is chronically incapable of sitting still long enough to commit to a TV series, I never got into the show. But, nearly ten years after the last season, the new season – Borgen: Power & Glory – which dropped on Netflix in early June has me hooked. Sure, watching a series rife with scenes literally from my backyard is great, but the real appeal to me is the new season’s uncanny ability to build on the real life challenges of Greenlandic sovereignty, climate change, global energy security, and Arctic geopolitics. As a climate scientist with a focus on Arctic ecosystems and natural resource management, I am intrigued by what feels like close-to-real life scenarios unfolding in this Danish political drama.
Borgen: Power & Glory opens with scenes of a successful whale hunt in Greenland, with ample footage of the sweeping vastness of Greenland’s ice sheet, rocky, glacier-carved mountains, and a plethora of recently calved icebergs floating on a deep blue sea. Cut to an oil drilling operation that has just struck gold: trillions of kroner (billions of USD) worth of oil. Greenland is an autonomous region of the Kingdom of Denmark and an immediate question for the Borgen characters becomes how Greenland and Denmark will negotiate a division of revenues should this oil source be developed. As a constituent of Denmark, Greenland has sovereignty over certain matters pertaining to their economic, social, and political systems while Denmark still holds control over other matters, including military and diplomatic. In real life, Denmark provides 3.8 billion kroners (more than 503 million USD) per year to boost Greenland’s economy. In the show and in real life, then, the development of prized natural resources and associated economic gain would offer Greenland a chance to buy their independence from Denmark.
As in real life, however, oil development comes with an environmental cost. Borgen: Power & Glory’s Danish Foreign Minister, Birgitte Nyborg (played by Sidse Babbet Knudsen), is committed to helping Denmark achieve oil independency and carbon neutrality by 2050 and remaining in the Paris agreement. But, in the show, the Greenland government is eager to extract the oil and reap the economic benefits. Conversations between Birgitte and members of the Greenland government underscore the irony of Denmark, which is part of the powerful, developed world of polluting countries, asking Greenland to deny itself oil development and associated economic gain now that climate change has become such a pressing issue (a nod to real life difficulty across international governance of establishing liability for climate change and balancing a country’s right to development with environmental protection).
In episode one of the new season, Nyborg makes it clear that she believes drilling for Greenland’s oil is environmentally indefensible. But, as witnessed in real life, most major politicians are reluctant to actually back up strong environmental stances with effective policy. President Biden, for example, has been outspoken on the need to address climate change yet under his administration new public lands and waters have been opened for oil drilling. Time and again we’ve seen political probity take a nosedive as incumbents pander to audiences with vastly different environmental value systems in attempts to maintain power. How Borgen’s Nyborg holds up under the strain of pressures to increase economic revenues and hold fast to her morals is essentially what the new season of Borgen is all about.
To complicate matters, the drilling company that actually found the oil in Borgen: Power & Glory is Canadian but its top investor happens to be a highly influential (and obviously scandalous) Russian. Nyborg must then not only negotiate over extraction rights with Greenland but balance competing interests in Greenland’s newly-discovered oil resources from the United States, China, and Russia.
Arctic geopolitics are complicated. In the show and in real life. Arctic territory has long been a strategic asset: a place where superpowers like Russia can build up its military essentially unobstructed and a region where land and sea claims are hotly disputed due to vast quantities of undeveloped natural resources. The United States has actually tried (unsuccessfully) to buy Greenland from Denmark twice in the last century.
With global energy security on tenterhooks these days, there is even more conversation around if and how Arctic natural resources should be developed and who actually has the rights to these resources given that the Arctic littoral region actually encompasses five countries: Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the U.S. (with others such as China vying to be let into the Arctic innercircle). Not to mention the Arctic’s more than 500,000 Indigenous people who have lived on the land for millenia.
Russia is one of the world’s top 3 crude producers (behind Saudi Arabia and the US) and a major player in the global energy supply chain. The February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and ongoing war have heightened tensions around the world and thrown global energy markets into a state of tumult. Energy prices have risen globally due to short supply and there is an increasing sense of urgency to find new (ideally cleaner) sources of energy.
Climate change is unlocking previously inaccessible stores of carbon-based energy. In a research project I completed in 2019, I combined scientific and economic analyses to assess the fate of Arctic oil and gas resources across the next two decades in the context of a changing climate. The 2008 Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal (CARA) suggests that there could be at least 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil (equivalent to 5.9% of the world’s known oil reserves) in the Arctic. During my 2019 research I ultimately reached the conclusion that by 2040, accessibility and high-production costs associated with development in Arctic ecosystems would still act as barriers to fully recognizing the potential of Arctic carbon-based fuel sources. But global geopolitics have changed since then and there is increasing pressure from numerous countries to explore Arctic hydrocarbon development in response to the global energy crisis.
The corollaries between the world portrayed in Borgen: Power & Glory and that in which we live are eerie and there’s no doubt that the show gets a lot right. The interplay of Arctic geopolitics, security, global energy demands, and climate change pose challenges to countries around the world. But the real world actually offers a little more hope for environmentalists out there than the producers of Borgen: Power & Glory provide. In 2021, the Greenlandic government suspended oil exploration and enacted other political defenses to ward off mining and natural resource prospecting within Greenland’s territory. It’s no Hollywood ending as climate change continues to have devastating impacts on the integrity of the Greenland ice sheet, the livelihoods of its people, and the stability of its natural ecosystems, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.