Like most cities on Sunday mornings, downtown Oslo is pretty quiet. A few cars roll lazily down the spacious streets, the echoes off the surrounding buildings serve to accentuate the emptiness. But unlike most places, the citizens of this city aren’t sitting at home on the couch, watching old TV shows and nursing a hangover. Downtown might be dead, and most stores closed, but go to the trailheads on the edge of the city and you’ll find full parking lots and dirt roads bustling with Norwegians of all ages rushing off to their chosen lake or backcountry cafe. On Sundays, hiking is to Norwegians what eating a greasy, delicious brunch is to many people in the States. Thanks to strict zoning laws, Oslo is surrounded by pristine forests and lakes, providing habitat for foxes, moose, salmon, wolverines, and even a few wolves. It’s not hard to get there: the subway goes straight to the trailhead. I live 20 minutes by bike from downtown Oslo, but I have literally hundreds of miles of trails right out my backdoor.
Indeed, connection with nature is as intrinsic to Norwegian culture as cross-country skiing and fermented herring. There’s a word for it: friluftsliv, which translates literally as “free air life.” There are various rough equivalents in English–“outdoorsy,” “crunchy,” “woodsy,” etc.– but all of them carry connotations of anything ranging from slight eccentricity to outright weirdness (see “treehugger,” “nature-loving freak”). In Norway, saying someone is interested in the outdoors is kind of like saying they casually enjoy drinking beer, or watching TV–far more the norm than the exception. Generous access laws allow for camping pretty much anywhere more than 500 feet from a building, as well as free rein over the sometimes-overwhelming supply of berries and mushrooms throughout the forest. The Norwegian Touring Association maintains free hiking and skiing trails all over the country, as well as a network of public “huts,” many of which would be better described as “mountain chalets.” Earlier this fall I asked a Norwegian to go on a hike as a first date. She made fun of me for being cliche.
When you love something you learn to protect it, and in many ways, Norway is the most environmentally progressive country in the world. In 1990, at a time when most Americans hadn’t even heard of climate change, Norway enacted a steep tax on carbon emissions, and it also participates in the European carbon market. Meanwhile, over 95 percent of Norway’s electricity comes from clean hydropower, and it has made huge contributions towards protecting the rainforest–a fundraiser this fall brought in over $20 million, an average of $4 per man, woman, and child. Norway is home to the most electric cars per capita of any country in the world, and after the Green Party picked up seats in the elections this fall, Oslo’s new city council has declared that downtown will become car-free by 2019.
But there’s a catch. Unlike its neighbors Sweden and Germany, which have risen as shining success stories in the climate arena, in the 25 years since Norway implemented a tax on carbon, carbon emissions haven’t decreased an ounce. How could that be? Two words: domestic production. Norway is the second largest natural gas exporter in the world, and the fifth largest exporter of oil. Extracting oil and gas from the North Sea produces a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions, and rapid expansion of the oil sector in recent years has offset almost everything else Norway has done to reduce its emissions combined. This ignores the emissions produced when that oil and gas is ultimately combusted in other countries around the world.
At least on the surface, this is a glaring hypocrisy. Norway has gone to great lengths to protect the environment, but at the same time a large part of its wealth is based on a product that is responsible for the single largest threat to both the environment and future human welfare. As Michael Booth put it in his recent book about all things Scandinavia, The Almost Nearly Perfect People, “[Norway] is the wily drug pusher who refuses to touch its own product.” Back in September, I attended a climate policy research conference, and towards the end of the day there was a presentation by a representative from Statoil, Norway’s partially state-owned oil company. He started out with an easy crowd-pleaser: “The science is clear… If we want to remain below the 2-degree target (set by the UN as the maximum level of warming that averts catastrophe), we cannot burn all the fossil fuels we have in the ground.” However, he continued, the world will need oil for decades to come, and Statoil plans to provide that service. Meanwhile, if we burn very little of the proven coal reserves, we can burn almost all the oil and gas we have! I had to laugh at the implication: ‘Norwegian oil isn’t the problem, we’re the good guys.’
A few weeks later, I attended a panel discussion at the university called “Climate and Capitalism,” questioning whether our current neoliberal system can be made compatible with a stable climate. The speakers began the event by engaging in an immortal European pastime: bashing the U.S. Essentially, they said, capitalism can be OK as long as it is combined with proper ethics. The problem is, while Norway has high moral standards, the big, bad U.S. does not. But it seemed to me they were ignoring something very important. As soon as there was time for questions, I stood up and asked, “Given that we have agreed on the 2-degree target, and given that we already have far more fossil fuels in proven reserves that we can safely burn, should we stop exploring new sources of oil?” The answer boiled down to an alarming statement: “No, given how dependent Norway is on oil revenue,” they said, “we must continue to develop new sources of fossil fuels.” An interesting system of ethics indeed.
And yet, Norway’s green values aren’t a lie. Statoil aside, I have found that most Norwegians are less in denial about their environmental hypocrisy than simply resigned to their fate as an oil-based economy. Again, it comes down to a single word: jobs. Earlier this fall, I went on a camping trip in the forest just north of Oslo with a mix of foreigners and Norwegians. Someone asked me about my research, and inevitably the discussion gravitated towards Norway’s contradictory positions on climate change. After a while, I realized that the one Norwegian nearby had not said a word, and I asked her what she thought. “Well,” she said carefully, “Oil is definitely very important for my hometown.” In her village, on the Atlantic coast north of the Arctic circle, essentially all the jobs come from either oil or fishing, and the latter industry has been struggling for decades. Before the development of oil in the 1970’s, many Norwegians eked out a living based on marginal ranching and farming in a climate not remotely suited to it. Her grandfather grew up in a grass-roof farmhouse with two rooms: one for the animals, and one for the people. Oil transformed the country, lifting many Norwegians out of poverty, and it is known to many as a modern-day fairytale.
To some extent, saying that Norway’s oil industry negates its environmental victories merely boils down to making the perfect the enemy of the good. Oil is an important source of livelihood to many Norwegians, and fossil fuels remain the lifeblood of modern society like mobility and electricity throughout the world. And if we blame Norway for providing the world with oil, we must also blame ourselves for using it.
But at the same time, Norway could and should be doing a lot more to curb its greenhouse gas emissions. With a per capita GDP of over $100,000 and one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world, Norway has a few kroner to spare. The truth is, contrary to what the speakers I mentioned above asserted, our current system is not compatible with a stable climate. At least in the U.S. we can blame multinational oil corporations for attacking our science and buying our politicians, but Norway has one of the most egalitarian and democratic governments in the world. If a country like Norway can have such a deep connection to nature and a strong commitment to protect it, yet be failing so utterly, something more fundamental must be amiss. The environmental crises we now face are the result of fundamental aspects of the society in which we live, and solving them requires more than protecting areas of natural beauty and reducing our consumption. The system in which we live is dependent on the use of fossil fuels, and so is incompatible with saving the environment; in order to do so, we will need to create an entirely new system.
Taxing carbon and protecting the rainforest are important, but as we can see from Norway, it is not enough. Norway will only stop producing oil when it has jobs to replace those it will lose. Creating those jobs will require massive investment in clean industries, along with a commitment to ensure that further economic growth occurs in those sectors and not in oil. Norway already has a phrase for this: det grønne skiftet (“the green shift”), meaning creating a sustainable society based on green jobs. But it won’t be easy, and it is still unclear if this phrase is more than words. Statoil reported 7 major new discoveries this year, while expanding oil drilling into the Norwegian Arctic is still under discussion.
Nonetheless, the tides of public perception are shifting. As low oil prices lead to increasing unemployment, more and more people are realizing that maybe fossil fuels aren’t the best way to support a modern economy. Leading up to the global climate conference in Paris this month, on November 28 thousands of people took to the streets of Oslo to demand stronger climate action. The demands were simple but firm: 1) Norway must reduce its carbon emissions, 2) Norway must support climate justice around the world, and 3) Norway must commit to green job creation. In its simplicity, the chant that filled the air echoed the frustration of a people who know the huge potential of their country, and know that it has failed: “We want action; no more empty words.” The challenge of rebuilding our society around sustainable and egalitarian means is immense and daunting, but it is also possible. And if there is any country in a position to lead the way, it’s Norway.