Warming for a fight

Climate Central

Last month, a story in Forbes headlined, "US Navy scrambles for piece of Arctic pie," highlighted what is perhaps the most explicit test case for climate change and geopolitics. As Forbes reported:

"The US Navy is staging the aquatic-equivalent of a dog-and-pony show in the Arctic Ocean this month with a small fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. The military exercises are designed to bolster US claims on emerging – and likely lucrative – commercial opportunities in the region, which have attracted intense interest in recent years as global warming accelerates what appears to be the permanent loss of sea ice in the Arctic."

For some quick background, here's what the Center for a New American Security wrote in a report last April:

"Reductions in Arctic summer sea ice have created new opportunities for access to maritime trade routes and sea lines of communication, and potential access to vast supplies of zinc, nickel, palladium, precious stones and other various minerals, as well as oil and natural gas under the ocean with an estimated value of 1.2 trillion dollars."

There's a relevant backstory that is important to know. In 2007, Russian explorers planted their country's flag on the Arctic floor under the North Pole. As the BBC reported then, "Russia's claim to a vast swathe of territory in the Arctic, thought to contain oil, gas and mineral reserves, has been challenged by several other powers, including the US."

My favourite quote in that story is from then-Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay, who said, "This isn't the 15th Century.You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say 'We're claiming this territory'."

Maybe not, but in case the message wasn't received loud enough, the Kremlin warned two years later in a national security document:

"In a competition for resources it cannot be ruled out that military force could be used to resolve emerging problems that would destroy the balance of forces near the borders of Russia and her allies."

This global warming = Arctic geopolitical hot spot narrative was echoed by scholars. In a March 2009 essay in the journal Foreign Affairs, entitled, "The Great Game moves North," Scott Borgerson wrote that, "The next few years will be critical in determining whether the region's long-term future will be one of international harmony and the rule of law, or a Hobbesian free-for-all."

It's been several years since Borgerson published that essay, so to paraphrase one of Ed Koch's favorite quips, How we Doing? Is the Arctic heating up not just literally but also politically and militarily? Are western nations working cooperatively to balance out their competing Arctic interests or they preparing for that "Hobbesian for-for-all"? 

My sense, after querying environmental security experts, is that the geopolitics of the Arctic lie somewhere in the middle of these two poles. I'll delve more deeply into this in a future post, laying out the various pathways that might lead to international cooperation or conflict.

Meanwhile, Geoffrey Dabelko, the director of the environmental change and security program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, summarised the current state of affairs, when he said to me via email:

"The institutions are there in the Arctic to navigate peacefully the inevitable disputes, squabbles, and competition around new transport routes, new access to resources, and new borders (or newly relevant ones) engendered by climate change. They have to be prioritised and given a chance to work rather than jumping to the overheated rhetoric that followed the Russian flag planting stunt. And there are difficult questions about who has standing in such forums: littoral states or all states. But ironically, that very stunt made it much easier to get greater attention for the changing Arctic where it was previously garnering little notice."

I'm guessing that we'll still see plenty of posturing — both rhetorically and militarily — as the the Arctic sea ice continues to melt. But Dabelko thinks that the US and Russia (and presumably the other Arctic states) will be able navigate the turbulent waters ahead:

"Our political institutions should be up to negotiating these high stakes economic and political changes to avoid more overtly conflictual outcomes. Of course heading off conflict as a result of climate change is significantly easier than heading off climate change itself. On the latter, our political institutions are obviously failing."

This article was originally published on Climate Central. Reproduced with permission.