Climate Change in the Arctic: Geopolitical and Security Implications

It became trivial to say that climate change is the main reason and a trigger for the recent significant changes in the Arctic region. Indeed, climate change can exacerbate existing drivers of instability in the Arctic, and may lead to disputes over trade routes, maritime zones and resources previously inaccessible.

It became trivial to say that climate change is the main reason and a trigger for the recent significant changes in the Arctic region. Indeed, climate change (first of all polar ice retreat) can exacerbate existing drivers of instability in the Arctic, and may lead to disputes over trade routes, maritime zones and resources previously inaccessible. This competition may lead to security threats for particular countries of the region and overall international instability. There is a number of areas where rather significant security challenges can be met.

In fisheries, climate change might bring increased productivity in some fish stocks and changes in spatial distributions of others. New areas may become attractive for fishing with increased access due to reduced sea ice coverage. For some of the Arctic high seas waters there is not yet an international conservation and management regime in place. This might lead to unregulated fisheries and, hence, conflicts because of that.

For example, fisheries have become a bone of contention between the EU and Iceland on the accession negotiations because Reykjavik feels uneasy to provide EU member states with an access to its economic zone. Besides, Brussels insists on stopping whale hunting in which Iceland is involved (along with Norway and Japan).

The Russian-Norwegian bilateral tensions are one more example of fishery-driven conflict. Particularly, the Russian fishery lobby is discontent with the Russian-Norwegian treaty on maritime zones delimitation of 2010 because it believes that Norway got the maritime zones which are richer in fish than the Russian ones. For the same reason (the Norwegian ‘part’ of the Barents Sea is getting richer in fish because of the climate change), Oslo insists on the revision of the Paris Treaty on Svalbard of 1920 which establishes an international regime for economic activities on the archipelago while Russia and other treaty signatories are against it. In reality, there are repeated conflicts between Russian trawlers fishing around the Svalbard and the Norwegian coastal guard that tries to arrest them.

In the sphere of hydrocarbons extraction, retreating ice opens up new commercial opportunities for gas and petroleum activities. This may increase competition between the five coastal states for control over continental shelf and maritime zones as well as invite another conflict – between the Arctic-5 (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the U.S.) and non-coastal states (such as Finland, Sweden, UK, China, Japan, South Korea, India, etc.) who would like to participate in exploitation of the Arctic natural resources. The role of international legal regimes (especially UN Convention on the Law of Sea) and bodies (UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf) are particularly important in this regard.

For example, the Lomonosov ridge which is allegedly rich in oil and gas has become an apple of discord between the three coastal states – Canada, Denmark and Russia. Each country claims that this ridge is a part of their continental shelf. For instance, Russia is working hard to prepare its new application for the UN Commission on Continental Shelf to justify its claims on this part of the Arctic. A series of expeditions have been organized to get scientific evidence that the Lomonosov ridge (and the Mendeleev one) is a continuation of the Siberian continental platform. According to some accounts, Moscow plans to prepare a new application for the extension of its exclusive economic zone by 2015.

In transportation domain , retreating ice opens up new opportunities for shipping as well with a more intensive use of the Northern Sea Route and North-West Passage. This may increase competition between coastal and non-coastal states for the control over these passages and, at the same time, emphasize the need for new legal regimes and transport and search and rescue (SAR) infrastructures. China, Japan and South Korea (the nations that are most interested in exploitation of these sea routes) insist that the NSR and NWP are the humankind’s assets or global commons and should be available for everyone and – hence - internationalized. On the contrary, Russia and Canada believe that they have priority in these areas because of their geographic proximity and historical reasons. Both Moscow and Ottava plan to develop these routes and provide them with more advanced infrastructures and increased safety.

Climate change could expand opportunities for development of the tourism and recreation industry . On the other hand, it is important that both individual countries and international organizations should continue to support sustainable Arctic tourism, welcoming the efforts made to minimize its environmental footprint. Protection of the environment and benefits to local coastal communities should be primary considerations. The safety of tourist shipping is one more area of concern. To cope with this challenge the Arctic Council started to work on a legally binding document to regulate tourist shipping in the region.

Climate change leads towards significant change in population flows . It caused increased migration of both indigenous population (because of the radical restructuring of its economy and way of life) and work force (which is occupied in the gas/petroleum and mining industries, transport and military sectors). The migration flows are especially intense in the Russian sector of the Arctic because the growing economic activities in this region attract labor migrants not only from other parts of Russia but also from various post-Soviet republics. These developments dictate the need for large-scale socio-economic programs to adapt both the local population and newcomers (migrants) to such radical changes.

Climate change entails not only socio-economic but also military challenges to the Arctic region, thus might lead towards the remilitarization of the region . The increasing competition for trade routes, maritime zones and natural resources has already led and continues to lead to a military build-up of particular coastal states and intensification of NATO military activities in the region. In contrast with the Cold war era, the current military efforts aim at protection of economic interests of the Arctic states and assertion of their national sovereignty over the maritime zones and trade routes rather than global confrontation between two superpowers or military blocs.

To give some examples of military buildups in the region, for instance, Canada plans to create a 5000-strong ranger unit in its North. The U.S. and Canada are modernizing the NORAD system. Besides, the U.S. is strengthening its Alaska Command and even plans to deploy an ABM system in the Arctic region (either land-based in Northern Norway and/or sea-based if ice retreating to continue). Norway is engaged in a quite impressive program to modernize its coastal guard (including five new frigates’ acquisition). Russia has resumed it strategic aviation flights over the Northern Atlantic, develops its Northern Fleet (including its nuclear component) and plans to create special Arctic troops to control its Arctic Ocean coastline. Moreover, according to the so-called Stoltenberg Report of 2009, the five Nordic nations (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) decided to create joint military units as well as air monitoring system and SAR infrastructures which are specially designed for the Arctic. They also plan to create a space group of three satellites to enhance the above structures’ capabilities in communications and navigation.

These developments affect the international security regime in the region in a very negative way. Many experts believe that a special arms control regime for the Arctic should be negotiated and legal mechanisms to solve climate change-related conflicts should be developed. The proposals to develop a system of confidence- and security-building measures in the region are made by the international expert community as well.

Towards a multilevel/multilateral governance system?

It should be noted that all the Arctic Council’s member-states acknowledge the importance of issues related to climate change, discuss them and prioritize them in their Arctic strategies. The Arctic states fully understand that the main responsibility for solving climate change-related problems lies with them rather than with international institutions. For example, as the recent Russian Arctic strategy (February 2013) suggests, Moscow aims at developing a special Federal Task Program to cope with the climate change’s consequences for the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation. It is planned to develop such a program by 2016 and address it to the issues such as the climate change’s implications for the regional and local economies, communities and environment. Moreover, Moscow pledged to invest more to further research on and monitoring the climate change dynamics both domestically and internationally.

As far as the multilateral level is concerned the Arctic states call for the improvement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change regime and continuation of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment project which was jointly implemented by the AC and the International Arctic Science Committee. The work of the International Panel for Climate Change that operates under the UN auspices and regularly publishes reports is also very important.

However, it’s clear that there is still a long way to go to create an efficient multilateral governance system to both adapt the region to the ongoing climate change and prevent climate change-related conflicts between various international actors in the Arctic. Various international actors, which differ by their background, status and size and range from powerful states to small NGOs, should first harmonize their approaches to the problem of climate change in order to develop common legal regime and institutional mechanisms that could be capable to successfully cope with this fundamental challenge.

The authors are laureates of the Valdai Club Foundation Grant Program .

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.