How Climate Change Could Reshape Geopolitics Around The Arctic

Photo: USGS

by Kiley Kroh

The Arctic is warming at an alarming rate – twice as fast as the rest of the planet – and according to a new report, those changes will be a key driver of geopolitics in the coming years.

As the rapidly melting ice unlocks commercial opportunities in shipping, tourism and oil and gas extraction, the world’s largest economies are jockeying for control of the region. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the melting of the Arctic is a “bellwether for how climate change may reshape geopolitics in the post-Cold War era.”

The widely held notion that climate change will occur gradually over the 21st century, allowing ample time for society to adapt, is belied by the unprecedented pace of both climate change and policy developments in the Arctic today. Such rapid changes will challenge governments’ abilities to anticipate and diplomatically resolve international disputes within the region.

Accelerating changes in the region are causing sea ice to melt at a rate exceeding scientists’ predictions.  The absence of ice will open up strategic waterways, such as the Northwest Passage, for longer periods of time and allow more opportunity for activities like offshore oil exploration that require open water. Analysts believe the economic impact could be significant – new and expanded shipping routes can significantly reduce the transit time between Asia, North America and Europe, and oil companies like Royal Dutch Shell are eager to unlock the “great opportunity” for fossil fuels they believe lies beneath the pristine Arctic waters.

But increased opportunity will also lead to increased conflict. In analyzing recent policy statements and actions of the Arctic states, the report notes that while the countries seem “focused on building a cooperative security environment in the region,” there is an “apparently contradictory trend toward modernizing their military forces in the Arctic … Consequently, if political cooperation in the region should sour, most of the Arctic nations will have forces that are prepared to compete in a hostile environment.”

Further complicating Arctic claims is the absence of the U.S. in the Law of the Sea treaty, or UNCLOS, which details the rights and responsibilities of nations when it comes to use and protection of the world’s oceans. The treaty also provides an important framework for resolving territorial disputes in the Arctic.  UNCLOS is ratified by every other developed country and is supported by a broad coalition that includes five former Republican secretaries of state, the Chamber of Commerce, and major environmental groups.  America’s failure to ratify this key treaty puts us at an immediate disadvantage in frontier regions like the Arctic.

And what of the environmental implications?  With more vessels trying to navigate the narrow straits and channels of the Northwest Passage, commercial fishing vessels, cruise ships, and drilling rigs operating in the previously inaccessible Arctic Ocean, the risk of a collision or oil spill increase exponentially.

As detailed in the Center for American Progress report, Putting a Freeze on Arctic Ocean Drilling: America’s Inability to Respond to an Oil Spill in the Arctic, the U.S. lags far behind other Arctic nations in infrastructure and preparedness to respond to a major event.  There are no U.S. Coast Guard stations north of the Arctic Circle, and we currently operate just one functional icebreaking vessel. Alaska’s tiny ports and airports are incapable of supporting an extensive and sustained airlift effort. The region even lacks such basics as paved roads and railroads.

This dearth of infrastructure would severely hamper the ability to transport the supplies and personnel required for any large-scale emergency response effort. Furthermore, the extreme and unpredictable weather conditions complicate transportation, preparedness, and cleanup of spilled oil to an even greater degree.

The co-author of the C2ES report noted that “a prevalent theme in nearly all the policy announcements was the need to protect the region’s environment in the face of rapid climate change and increased economic activity.”  However, it is difficult to imagine how forces as strong as rapid climate change and increased economic activity will lead to anything other than environmental destruction.

And as NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco explained last year, the potential ramifications of this industrialization extend far beyond the region itself:

Well, what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. It has huge implications for the global system. And one of the reasons people are legitimately concerned about melting of sea ice are the uncertainties associated with the consequences of that for the rest of the planet. We’re entering a no-analogue world here. We’ve never experienced the kinds of changes that we’re seeing now in the Arctic and elsewhere. And we don’t fully understand what the consequences of that are going to be.

Much of the Arctic remains a mystery.  We do know that the effects of climate change are being felt more strongly in the region than any other part of the world. And with more industrialization in this region, those changes — both environmental changes and geopolitical changes — will only accelerate.

Kiley Kroh is the Associate Director of Ocean Communications for the Center for American Progress

9 Responses to How Climate Change Could Reshape Geopolitics Around The Arctic

  1. Nick B says:

    Talk about “fools gold” and Pyrrhic victories. The so called conquering of the Arctic will be the undoing of humanity.

    To think that we can “adapt” to climate change once we pass through the tipping points that we are currently straddling, is a completely stupid.

    As Hansen said, “If you push the system hard enough you will get those effects [of melting ice sheets and the release methane hydrates].”

    Politicians are playing God for profit and that undermines and makes a mockery of the democratic right to life of all people and creatures. I just hope we avert this disaster and then put all those responsible on trial. The crimes are akin to the atrocities we have seen historically in times of war.

  2. We are stuck in the story of Moby Dick.

    We are but the crew of the Pequod, and our mad captains are chasing a carbon doom.

  3. Mark E says:

    AMAZING… I realize one can’t include everything in such a short column, but one would think the potential for social unrest due to food insecurity in the midlatitudes would at least merit a mention. Recent papers have suggested melting the arctic sea ice will…..

    weaken the arctic oscillation….

    producing very large waves in the jetstream (with a large north-south amplitude)….

    where the northward flows will push hot air much father north than normal and the southward flows will push cold air much farther south than usual….

    and some extreme weather systems will be “blocked” (i.e., linger in place)

    which will subject all food crops to….

    (A) much larger and longer lasting extremes in temperature…

    (B) much drier and much wetter growing conditions….

    (C) very different timing of temp highs/lows/and precip.

    Sure, the greater accessibility afforded by melting polar ice is redrawing geopolitics. But equally dramatic on that chessboard will be the social unrest caused by temperature extremes, alternating drought/flood cycles, and crop failures. Ya’ll ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

  4. Joe Romm says:

    We’ve done a lot of posts on that.

  5. Mark E says:

    True enough! I was commenting with respect to the headline and the net’s echo machine. Wherever the post goes next, that readership won’t necessarily be aware of the connection.

  6. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    The US is in no way ready for the changes in the Arctic. Denial is compromising security.

    Failure to ratify treaties, combined with inadequate resources is leaving the Russians in the box seat.

  7. Jack Burton says:

    Russia is in a box seat more by nature of it’s position in the Arctic. The far north of Russia encircles a nice portion of the arctic ocean. Russia also has many decades of experience in these northern waters.
    America may be in climate change denial and major corporations may contribute money to the deniers, but at the same time no one is more anxious to profit from a melting arctic and Greenland than the corporations.
    They may deny climate change, but when profit making is at stake, they rush to exploit a melting northern landscape!

  8. Joan Savage says:

    Granted Russians had familiarity with the ‘old’ Arctic, the “new’ Arctic exhibits less familiar behavior. The methane release far from coastal melt and wind patterns that pile the remaining sea ice up for months through the summer are new phenomena to nearly everyone.
    Occasionally the Russians find wooly mammoths perfectly preserved in Arctic land ice that is now melting; one specimen famously had flowers still in its mouth. The wooly mammoth remains should serve as reminders of how abruptly climate can change, and stay changed for thousands of years.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Geography leaves Russia in A box-seat. Paranoid obsessions are the last thing humanity needs at the current time. Why not sit down with the Arctic littorals and the UN and negotiate a mutually beneficial arrangement?