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Engagement Reframed

May 12, 2022

Engagement Reframed #6: US Arctic policy should prioritize environmental protection

By Alec Evans

Key points

  • Climate change poses a momentous threat to the Arctic, which is warming far faster than the global average. Global warming is already causing significant harm to the Arctic environment and infrastructure; the damage will only increase as temperatures continue to rise.
  • Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United States and its regional allies boycotted the Arctic Council and suspended almost all forms of Arctic cooperation with Russia. This decision could imperil the future of the Arctic environment for every stakeholder involved.
  • Even during the most competitive days of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union compartmentalized issues to make tangible progress on polar environmental and scientific concerns. The same framework should be applied to Arctic relations with Russia today. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine warrants a robust response from the West, but the United States and its allies cannot jeopardize the Arctic climate by refusing to work with all relevant parties, including those in Moscow.

What is the opportunity?

The effects of climate change are increasing in magnitude worldwide, but nowhere is this shift more apparent than in the Arctic. The region is warming two to four times more rapidly than the global average, upending the stable geopolitical dynamics US policymakers once relied on. Although global warming will bring new opportunities to the area, for example, by opening new shipping routes that could expedite international trade, it also poses a grave threat to the vulnerable Arctic environment. Warming conditions have already put 21,000 species at risk and will impose enormous costs on regional governments in the years ahead. Thawing permafrost could cause radiological disasters and oil spills, and might greatly exacerbate and accelerate global climate change. Therefore, it is imperative that Washington’s Arctic strategy prioritize climate change mitigation and that the United States cooperate pragmatically with other Arctic states toward this end.

Historically, international relations above the Arctic Circle have been surprisingly collaborative, even during periods of global turmoil and interstate competition. In 1952, in the midst of the Korean War and under Joseph Stalin’s direction, the Soviet Union sought to join the third International Geophysical Year, a multinational Arctic scientific initiative. Twenty years later, during the peak of the US bombing campaign in Vietnam, the US-Soviet Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of Environmental Protection of 1972 was enacted. Moreover, during the closing days of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev made significant steps toward establishing an international framework in the Arctic. Not only were these actions vital first steps for regional environmental protection, they also proved that two countries mired in high-intensity competition can still collaborate on environmental and scientific issues.

Why now?

In the last decade, US Arctic policy has increasingly emphasized confrontation with strategic rivals in lieu of cooperation. The most visible aspect of this shift has been the significant expansion of US military deployments in the region, which is itself predicated on the false assumption that the primary reason the Russian armed forces have expanded their northern footprint is to claim newly accessible northern territory, not to protect the vast resource wealth that lies within Russian territory and keeps Vladimir Putin’s regime in power. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine precipitated a sharp regression of international environmental collaboration and scientific exchange that is vital to the health and stability of the Arctic and the rest of the world. The decision to cut off such dialogue was understandable, given the cruelty of the Russian war, but it was short-sighted in that it impedes a candid assessment of how to best safeguard US and allied interests.

In response to Russia’s assault on Ukraine, the United States and its regional partners have boycotted the Arctic Council, an organization at the forefront of Arctic climate protection and research. Moreover, with limited exceptions, international scientific collaboration with Russian researchers has ground to a halt, with hundreds of projects paused or canceled outright. Experts undertaking pressing international initiatives, such as studies on permafrost thawing, cannot obtain irreplaceable data from Russian sources, and Western scientists derive no benefit from Russia’s cadre of climate experts and Arctic resources.

This shift comes at a critical moment for US Arctic territory. Alaska is warming more than twice as quickly as the rest of the United States and is experiencing the fastest glacier loss on the planet. Models predict that the size of Alaskan wildfires will double by 2050 and triple by 2100. Rising sea levels and receding ice floes are threatening traditional food supplies for Inuit communities, and corresponding coastal erosion has forced entire towns to relocate. Furthermore, permafrost thaw is expected to “add as much as $6 billion to the costs of buildings, pipelines, roads, and other infrastructure over the next 20 years.”

US policymakers should not allow Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, abhorrent as it is, to impede climate cooperation at such a critical moment.

The costs of climate change will be even steeper for Russia. The country is projected to warm 2.5 times faster than the global average. In 2021, wildfires burned 45 million acres in Russia, an area slightly smaller than the country of Syria. Contrary to statements by Putin, the warming climate will also reduce Russia’s agricultural potential. Moreover, melting permafrost will wreak havoc on Russia’s northerly settlements and infrastructure. According to the Arctic Institute, “By 2050, it is estimated that 20 percent of commercial and industrial structures and 19 percent of critical infrastructure representing $84.4 billion, and 54 percent of residential buildings with a total cost of $20.7 billion in Russia will be negatively impacted by permafrost degradation.” Russian government auditors predict that, by the end of the decade, mitigating the effects of climate change will cost 2-3 percent of the country’s GDP. The auditors argue that “without solving its myriad environmental and ecological problems, Russia will fall short of its ambitious targets to increase life expectancy, improve demographics and boost the economy.”

Warming temperatures in the Arctic could also kickstart a phenomenon that will exponentially increase the rate of climate change. Not only will the thawing permafrost damage buildings and infrastructure, but it will release vast quantities of carbon dioxide and methane as the Arctic warms. Even with low levels of warming, permafrost thaw could release emissions equivalent to those of a medium-sized country. The Arctic permafrost contains 1.5 trillion tons of organic carbon, but researchers are unsure at what rate these gasses will be released, or how different levels of thawing will affect different regions. Russian data and expertise are needed to accurately judge permafrost thaw and evaluate differences between regions. According to one US permafrost scientist, “If you cut off your view of changing permafrost in Russia, you’re really cutting off our understanding of global changes to permafrost.”

Another profound concern is the potential for hydrocarbon and radiological disasters. Each year, western Siberia’s oil and gas pipelines experience 35,000 disruptive incidents, of which about 20 percent are linked to permafrost degradation. In 2020, thawing permafrost in Norilsk caused a fuel leak, which led to a major environmental crisis. Furthermore, the structural stability of several nuclear power plants and radioactive-waste-storage facilities in the Russian Arctic is also threatened by permafrost loss. The Kara Sea is home to more nuclear waste than any other ocean on earth because the Soviet Union dumped nuclear reactors and spent uranium fuel in the area. Although the Kremlin plans to recover some nuclear materials from the Arctic, the Russians will be unable to do so alone. An incident like Norilsk at one of these radiological sites could have catastrophic consequences for countries worldwide.

Policymakers in Washington and Moscow have placed increased emphasis on the dangers of climate change and are beginning to act accordingly. The Biden administration has rejoined the Paris Agreement and set ambitious targets for emissions reduction and climate change mitigation. Moreover, Russia has announced limited emissions reductions and has expressed its willingness to work with the United States on climate issues. It had planned to host an Arctic Council conference on nuclear waste disposal in June 2022, which has since been canceled, and its Arctic diplomats have lamented the lapse in Arctic cooperation. Nevertheless, further cooperation on the Arctic will be necessary if some of the worst effects of climate change are to be avoided—a breakdown in the relationship could badly damage US and Russian interests while further imperiling the rest of the world. US policymakers should not allow Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, abhorrent as it is, to impede climate cooperation at such a critical moment.

How to make it happen

1. Compartmentalize climate concerns. The United States should practice compartmentalization when negotiating with rivals on climate change. Humanity no longer has the luxury of forsaking climate concerns, especially in one of the world’s most environmentally consequential and fragile regions. Fostering a sustainable working relationship with Russia on climate change will be impossible if extraneous factors can undermine indispensable shared interests.

As noted, US and Soviet policymakers made significant strides on environmental and scientific collaboration in the Arctic, even during the most tense days of the Cold War. Since then, the climatic stakes in the region have only grown. The Biden administration was able to bring China to the table and declare sweeping environmental goals last year, despite the growing animosity between Beijing and Washington. A similar model should be applied to US-Russia Arctic relations.

Although it is tempting to tie pre-existing sanctions on the Russian economy to Moscow’s Arctic environmental policies, doing so would undermine the compartmentalization that has facilitated Arctic collaboration to date. US-Soviet Arctic cooperation was only possible during the most antagonistic days of the Cold War because policymakers set their differences aside in recognition of a shared security threat. Therefore, measures to influence Russia’s regional behavior should remain issue-specific.

2. Rejoin the Arctic Council, or ensure continued support for its most pressing initiatives. The Arctic Council has proven to be the foremost player in international climate policy in the region, and it was specifically designed to function in spite of the security differences of its member states. The United States and its allies have far more to lose by boycotting the organization than they stand to gain. Washington should resume participation in the Arctic Council as soon as possible; if this is infeasible during Russia’s chairmanship of the council, the United States should continue its support for the organization’s six expert working groups, or seek to duplicate their activities with regional partners or through other forums. Norway will take over as chair of the council in 2023.

The Arctic Council was responsible for several activities of key import to US Arctic interests. First, the organization was a principal organizer of scientific collaboration that included Russia, most of which has ground to a halt. Second, the Arctic Council created a working group to study radiological sites in the Arctic, create procedures to recover hazardous materials, and craft contingency plans in case of nuclear contamination. The council was set to convene this summer to discuss nuclear waste disposal, but the meeting has been canceled. Third, the organization was largely responsible for monitoring environmental conditions and pollution in the Arctic, and experts fear that without adequate oversight, Russia will be free to conduct harmful activities such as gas-flaring.

Analysts have proposed that the Arctic Council member states other than Russia duplicate the most important organizational projects among themselves, without Russian involvement. In fact, the United States has successfully engaged allies to pursue environmental goals outside of the forum in the past. Moreover, other organizations, such as the International Arctic Science Committee, have continued their operations without Russia since the invasion of Ukraine and could provide an alternative for regional engagement.

However, although this approach would yield more progress than suspending Arctic cooperation entirely, Russian involvement in Arctic climate collaboration is critical. The nation owns more than half of the Arctic coastline, contains the vast majority of the area’s radiological contamination, and samples and data from Russia are indispensable for climate change research. Therefore, the United States should seek to resume its participation in the Arctic Council in 2023 at the latest; Washington should also address the environmental concerns that are normally managed by the council’s working groups with other Arctic states until that point. US policymakers could also work through the Northern Forum, a Russia-based international organization that coordinates efforts among subnational Arctic governments; however, there is no full substitute for national-level collaboration on larger environmental priorities.

In the future, the United States cannot allow its relationship with the Arctic Council to become a victim of security competition. One of the principal strengths of the Arctic Council is its explicit commitment to avoid security issues. Then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo upended this norm by raising security concerns in the forum in 2019, and the United States and its Western partners boycotted the organization in response to another security situation, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If the United States continues to link its security concerns with its Arctic Council activities, the organization’s ability to safeguard the Arctic environment could be critically eroded.

3. Collaborate on radiological and hydrocarbon disaster prevention. The unstable nuclear plants, waste-storage facilities, and underwater disposal sites in the Arctic are a disaster waiting to happen. What’s worse, although the Russian government has proposals to dispose of some radioactive materials, Moscow is unable to do so for every nuclear site without external support. Washington cannot stand idly by as thawing permafrost and increased activity put these structures at risk, nor can it expect to remain unaffected by any ensuing catastrophes.

US policymakers have two options. Ideally, the United States could work through the Arctic Council’s established framework and working groups on nuclear waste disposal. If this is not possible, US policymakers could negotiate directly with Russia, with or without other regional partners, and provide whatever support is needed to prevent a radiological incident. Washington could also partner with a specialized organization like the International Atomic Energy Agency to construct an international strategy for the storage of nuclear waste in the Arctic.

4. Compel and incentivize Russia to reduce emissions. Although Moscow has committed to modest emissions reductions, the country’s plans are insufficient to meet the United Nation’s 1.5-degree warming threshold. Russia is the world’s fourth largest producer of carbon dioxide, and these emissions greatly influence future temperatures in the Arctic. The United States has few levers to influence Russian climate policy, but two options are available for US policymakers.

  • Encourage allies and partners to implement ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance)-based import restrictions on Russian goods. The European Union has leveraged these against Russia before, and many of Russia’s largest firms increased their sustainability metrics in response. The United States should impose similar restrictions, but it cannot hope to exert as much pressure as the EU, considering the diminutive size of its trade with Russia.
  • Washington could negotiate a bilateral climate agreement with Russia in a similar format to its recent negotiations with China. The Russian government has expressed its willingness to cooperate with the United States on climate concerns, and, given the gravity of the situation and the level of Russian pollution, the Biden administration should be willing to do the same. Strong enforcement mechanisms, based in part on the Montreal Protocol, should underpin any agreement. If this is not politically feasible at this moment, the United States should work to lay the groundwork for such an agreement in the future.

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