Climate Change and Arctic Security: Five Key Questions Impacting the Future of Arctic Governance

The day-to-day news cycle focuses on critically important national security issues, such as North Korea saber rattling, the ongoing Russia investigation, or whatever else happens to be the national security topic du jour. This flood of daily national security news makes it difficult to take a step back from the day-to-day news cycle and look at the broader security and geopolitical trends that are taking place—but that is exactly what climate change and its corresponding security impacts demand.

Consider but one example of climate change’s impact on the world: its outsized impact in the Arctic. Mariners since the 15th century have been fascinated by the Arctic region’s geography with an eye toward discovering shorter trade routes between Europe and Asia, and this 15th century dream is now becoming a 21st century reality. Climate change is opening navigational waterways and renewing the possibility of natural resource extraction (the Arctic is home to an enormous source of oil and gas reserves). Indeed, as of this writing, the cruise ship Crystal Serenity is successfully making another voyage of the fabled Northwest Passage, the largest cruise vessel to make such a journey in human history.

In determining what all this means for the future of Arctic security, there are five key questions that demand consideration given their outsized influence on future Arctic security issues.

First, will the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea successfully manage competing continental shelf claims in the Arctic? 

The Arctic as a whole, which includes the territory of numerous nations, lacks a unifying regional treaty (unlike its sister polar region, Antarctica) and is governed by the collaborative and largely non-binding work of the Arctic Council. But the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) applies in the Arctic Ocean, providing a legal architecture with a ready-made process to potentially solve competing continental shelf claims—where all the “goods” reside (oil, gas, minerals).  While four of the five Arctic coastal states (Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark) are parties to UNCLOS, the US Senate has not provided its advice and consent to ratification because of fears that it unacceptably encroached upon US sovereignty. 

As the only Arctic coastal state that is not a party to UNCLOS, the United States lacks a clear path to make a continental shelf claim off its Alaskan coast. But that is not stopping the other four Arctic coastal states from making their own claims. In light of the growing importance in the Arctic, the United States’  should be focused on ensuring itself a seat at the table for future Arctic governance issues by becoming party to UNCLOS. Indeed, the case for ratification already has the wide support of the military, which already complies with the major UNCLOS navigational provisions and treats them as customary international law. Despite wide support for its ratification from the military, all former presidents, business leaders, and environmentalists, there remains no clear path for UNCLOS ratification in the Senate, undermining the treaty’s long-term ability to function as a one-stop adjudicatory shop for competing continental shelf claims in the Arctic.

Second, what are Russia’s long-term ambitions in the Arctic?

In 2007, with great media attention, a Russian submarine planted a flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole. Widely reported in the media but dismissed by legal scholars and many world leaders, this may foreshadow future maritime claims in light of climate change’s growing impact in the Arctic.

The Arctic is critical to US-Russia relations. In addition to the fact that he only border between Russia and the United States lies in the Arctic at the Bering Strait—which consequently made the Arctic a Cold War hotspot in the 1970s and 1980s — Moscow arguably has the most to gain from a global economic and security perspective from the opening of the Arctic and its seaways. Russia possesses the largest Arctic continental shelf of any nation (with enormous natural gas stores), and the Northeast Passage travels through Russian maritime waters, hugging its coast. Determining the precise contours of Russia’s continental shelf claim remains the central unresolved issue for Arctic oil and gas extraction.

While the United States possesses the largest military in the world, its capacity to operate lags in the Arctic. For instance, the United States has built only one new icebreaker in four decades, which only threatens the critical ability of our military to operate effectively and continually in the region. Although Defense Secretary James Mattis recently reiterated the Arctic’s importance to the Defense Department in congressional testimony, the United States only has two operational icebreakers and will not see an increase in icebreaking capacity for a long time. In contrast, Russia has invested in significant military infrastructure in the Arctic in recent years, building a presence there with over 40 icebreakers (many nuclear powered) and military air and sea bases on the Arctic Ocean. While the United States and Russia have found areas of mutual agreement through the work of the Arctic Council, Russia’s long-term military ambitions are unclear and will have an increasingly important role in future US-Russia relations.

And future Russian-NATO relations highlight the Arctic Council’s Achilles heel: its expressed prohibition on addressing matters of military security. Of the five Arctic coastal states, four are members of NATO. The Russian military has recently turned its attention to the Arctic in earnest, investing in military infrastructure to include the establishment of a new naval base in the Arctic. Russia does not have a rosy view of NATO’s Arctic role, recently designating NATO as “the primary national security threat in the Arctic.”

Third, what is the true pace of climate change in the Arctic?

The pace of climate change and its ultimate impact in the Arctic region and the world will undoubtedly have an immediate effect on the economics, health, and infrastructure of the Arctic indigenous peoples, potentially causing their relocation as Arctic refugees. Because of the albedo effect that accelerates the melting of the ice sheet, scientists already assess that the earth is warming at twice the overall rate in the polar regions. feedback loop. The race for the Arctic’s resources and new trade routes will depend, in large part, on the pace of anthropogenic change in the Arctic, an increasingly unknown, wild, and critical variable.  The Arctic ice has continued to melt at the rate of a 13 percent decrease per decade. Will this pace of change rapidly accelerate as ice caps melt?

Scientists have already declared stationarity—the idea that natural systems fluctuate within an unchanging envelope of variability—dead in planning for the future of water management.  This is in part due to the melting of ice sheets and the rapid increase in water run-off from ice-free land.  The dramatic changes in Arctic ice sheet melting—as well as the rapid deterioration of the Antarctic ice sheet—suggest that we are entering uncharted territory for planning not only for the polar regions’ future but for the rest of the world.   Consider the truly unknown impact of the tons of carbon that may be emitted by rapidly thawing permafrost. Its true impact is unknown, but some scientists estimate it to be catastrophic due to a vicious and accelerating carbon feedback loop.

Fourth, what is the future for energy prices and extraction costs in the Arctic?

Follow the money in the Arctic. The primary environmental protection for Arctic waters may for now be a drop in oil prices which have made it less economically viable to drill there. In September 2015, Royal Dutch Shell became the latest company to suspend Arctic oil exploration after spending more than $7 billion over the course of nearly a decade. Six other major oil companies had already stopped Arctic exploration, some announcing that it was too risky to drill in such a harsh environment. Although Exxon Mobil found oil in Russia’s Kara Sea, economic sanctions imposed after Russian incursions in Ukraine forced a halt to its operations there.

But the current Trump Administration has re-opened the door for massive Arctic drilling, proclaiming that up to 300,000 jobs would result from the Arctic drilling economy in a recent executive order that overturned a Obama Administration order banning offshore Arctic drilling. When oil prices inevitably rise, focus will once again turn to the Arctic and its vast untapped resources. Now is an opportune time for the Arctic Council to continue to improve upon its work, and adopt even greater environmental governance standards and security standards for shipping in the Arctic.

Fifth, will the Arctic Council be able to manage divergent interests between Arctic coastal states, Arctic non-coastal states, and non-Arctic states? 

Lastly, the rush for resources in the Arctic is beginning to highlight the fact that competition there isn’t limited to a handful of Arctic states. Instead, divisions need to be drawn according to the three broad categories of Arctic actors:

1) Arctic Council coastal states with continental shelf claims (Russia, United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway).

2) Arctic Council states without coastal claims (Iceland, Finland, Sweden).

3) Everyone else. Non-Arctic states—such as China—have shown an increased in interest in the Arctic in recent years.

The expanding interest from increasingly diverse stakeholders could strain and stress the existing “soft law” governance model—will the Arctic Council be up for the challenge?

Conclusion

While previous dire predictions about armed brinkmanship and conflict in the Arctic have not come to fruition, continual uncertainty remains. The Arctic states—through the Arctic Council—should continue to build upon its work and find areas of mutual collaboration that is in line with broader environmental principles to include environmental justice and the precautionary principle. While the negotiation of an Arctic Treaty may not be realistic, continued intergovernmental cooperation certainly is essential. And climate change—a scientific problem in need of a political solution—will continue to have a dramatic impact on Arctic security, irrespective of one’s political views or the day-to-day news cycle that distracts us from the long-term security threats posed by climate change.

 

About the Author(s)

Mark Nevitt

Sharswood Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and former commander in the Navy, serving as a tactical jet aviator and attorney in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps for 20 years. Follow him on Twitter (@marknevitt).