Arctic Climate Change Strategy

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Arctic Climate Change

Strategy is a roadmap that individuals, organizations, and countries use to advance interests over time. At a minimum, strategy is designed to prevent anticipated tragedies (such as conflict over a disputed territory) or at least be prepare for when tragedy strikes (e.g., humanitarian assistance after an earthquake). When it comes to climate change, emerging strategies are visible.

Given the natural and human processes that impact the environment, climate change cannot be prevented. However, countries are attempting to slow it by reducing carbon emissions, experimenting with carbon capture programs, and considering geo-engineering plans. Setting aside the pace and causes of climate change, there is significant evidence at least since the last ice age that the climate changes. Current predictions see the Arctic opening over the next several decades, though there are signs visible now during the short summer.

The inevitability of climate change is evident in the preparations countries are taking. This includes identifying vulnerable coastal areas, planning for mass migration of humans from low-lying areas, and considering the national security implications of climate change. Regarding the latter, some analysts have compared the Arctic as the new “great game” reminiscent of the British and Russian empires competing for influence in Central Asia in the nineteenth century. Today, Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, and the United States have competing claims, which test existing international political and legal structures. Fortunately, four of the five are NATO allies and all have working relations with Russia.

Even though climate change impacts every human being on the planet, Atlantic Council managing editor James Joyner argued a year ago in the New Atlanticist that, “This is not an issue that has gotten much attention, especially in national security circles, where most of us focus on more traditional military concerns.” Yet, there is a potential environmental security can develop into traditional national security concerns.

For example, CFR’s Scott Borgerson testified to Congress in 2009,

When taking a pan-Arctic view there are also a number of nagging sovereignty disputes. Every single bilateral relationship where Arctic countries share a physical border, except one, Norway and Denmark, has at least one significant point of disagreement. Like previous assumptions that the icecap is melting more slowly than it actually is, it would be a mistake to assume that all these potential flashpoints will remain sleeping dogs. The combination of new shipping routes, trillions of dollars in possible oil and gas resources, and a poorly defined picture of state ownership make for a toxic brew.

Likewise, Russia’s 2009 national security strategy warned that within a decade, nations could be at war over the Arctic as countries vie for important new maritime trade routes and new economic opportunities for hydrocarbon exploration. The expected shipping channel will reduce the transit between Europe and Asia by 10,000 miles. By doing so, shipping companies can bypass the contentious waters of East Africa (with its piracy threat) and Southeast Asia and save money on fuel and crew days at sea. With anticipated commercial shipping traffic, the navies of Canada, the United States, Norway, Denmark, and Russia expect to map the Arctic sea lanes, provide search and rescue, and protect their sovereignty claims there. The challenge of ownership is already proving to be contentious.

In August 2007, Russia planted its flag on the seafloor at the geographic North Pole. It did so under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by arguing that the underwater Lomonosov Ridge and North Pole are extensions of its landmass. Currently, Canada is using an underwater autonomous vehicle to map the Arctic in order to submit its claims to the United Nations by a 2013 deadline. The other claimants are conducting similar activities.

Climate change is certainly contentious (on many levels), but can it lead to war?

My Naval War College colleague James Kraska considers this in the American Interest. He sees five broad factors that contribute to rising tension in the Arctic. These include new shipping routes, demand for hydrocarbons and minerals, technological advances making it easier to work in the Arctic, permafrost thaw melt in Siberia and Canada that can destabilize infrastructure, and homeland security challenges created by new points of entry into North America. He sees that “the only way the Arctic nations can effectively manage the risks of increased activity, protect against asymmetric threats and maintain safety and regional order is to cooperate with one another.”

Confronting the economic, political, and security dimensions of climate change is challenging. But, international law seems to be a viable mechanism for states to resolve their disputes. And doing so can avoid war.

Derek Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.  These views are his own. AP Photo.