How the potential for profit and influence is overshadowing the Arctic’s climate crisis
By now, it is common knowledge that the polar ice caps are melting at an increased rate due to the rising temperatures linked with climate change. However, what is less commonly considered within the public sphere is that the reduced levels of Arctic ice may also lead to economic and strategic opportunities in the Far North. This changes the way that countries are perceiving the issue of melting sea ice. Many of the world’s largest powers, either distracted by the lure of untapped resources or preoccupied by strategic concerns, are now treating the melting ice caps as an inevitable process rather than attempting to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change.
Rising global temperatures are melting the earth’s ice caps. According to the Atlantic Council, surface air temperatures in the Arctic have continued to warm at twice the rate of the rest of the world. Rising temperatures transform this region by affecting the sea ice, permafrost, glaciers, and snow cover. The amount of sea ice has declined by around 10% while ice fields and glaciers are also melting. According to a SIPRI Background Paper, these changes, as well as affecting global sea levels, have caused “significant alterations in the biodiversity of marine and terrestrial eco-systems, which in turn significantly affect communities living in the arctic.”
However, as well as being one of the secondary effects of an ongoing climate disaster, less ice also means new opportunities in the Far North. For starters, reduced levels of ice would open up the shipping lanes in the region. Key polar routes like the Northwest Passage have seen longer periods of accessibility during the year in the past decade. These shipping routes would increase access both to and from the Arctic region and provide faster routes across the world. Via the northern route, Shanghai to German ports is 4,6000km shorter than the currently favoured passage through the Suez Canal, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Furthermore, easier access into and out of the Arctic would open the doors to marine transportation and exploration of the region’s lucrative natural resource deposits.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Arctic accounts for about 13% of undiscovered oil and 30% of undiscovered gas. Access and control of these resources would allow countries to significantly expand their economic zone. Unfortunately, tapping into this opportunity comes at an ecological price. Experts say that natural resource exploitation could exacerbate the adverse effects of climate change and accelerate the rise in global temperatures. This would, in turn, accelerate the melting of the polar ice.
All this means that the Arctic, having been largely overlooked for the past 30-odd years, has come back into the global spotlight, becoming an important geopolitical frontline. The renewal of the region’s strategic significance recalls the dynamics of the Cold War and increased economic interest and military activity in the region has touched a nerve for some states in the Western World. Among them, the U.S. has become increasingly uneasy about the surprising cooperation and activity of its primary rivals: Russia and China.
Russia’s Arctic Activities
With a fifth of its territory found north of the Arctic circle and the largest Arctic population according to the IISS, Russia is undeniably the dominant power in the Arctic. Recently, Russia has been looking for ways to bolster their economic power and the Arctic is a domain in which they can develop with relatively little obstruction. The New York Times reports that Russia has been militarizing the region, reviving cold-war era military bases along the northern coast and modernizing its nuclear submarines.
China’s Arctic Activities
On the other hand, with Beijing being further away than Berlin from the North Pole, according to the Clingendael Report, China is not an obviously ‘arctic’ state. However, over the past few decades, China has been intent on expanding their power and influence across the world. We have seen this in their use of soft power in countries across Latin America and Africa, China is constantly seeking new opportunities to extend their reach.
China’s ambitions in the Far North says Aleksi Harkonen, Finland’s ambassador for Arctic affairs, mirror its ambitions everywhere else. “It’s after global influence,” he stated, “including in the Arctic.” Over the past ten years, China has made efforts to integrate itself into the Arctic’s governance. In 2013, China became an observer nation on the Arctic Council. In 2018, Beijing declared China a ‘near-arctic’ state and outlined the development of a ‘polar silk road.’ Experts say that China is taking a long-term view of development and opportunities presented by the impacts of climate change.
While China’s Arctic Policy Paper indicates respect for sovereignty rights and the Arctic states’ stewardship of the Arctic, it also emphasizes China’s rights to “scientific research, navigation, overflight, fishing, laying of submarine cables and pipelines in the high seas and other relevant sea areas in the Arctic Ocean, and rights to resource exploration and exploitation in the area.”
Indeed, in recent years, China has invested billions into the Far North. However, not everyone is comfortable with their offers of financial support. Their actions in Greenland—from offering to renovate their airports to attempting to buy an old military base—has led the Denmark government, who handles foreign and defence policy for Greenland, to express concerns about China’s interest in the autonomous territory. Their research and scientific activity have also sparked worry among local governments. In November 2019, the Danish defence intelligence authorities warned that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army was increasingly utilizing scientific research as a means of entering the Arctic, describing such activities as not just a matter of science but serving a “dual purpose.”
The U.S.’ belated response
All this activity, especially the cooperation between two of its main rivals, has made the U.S. squirm. Unlike Russia and the other arctic states, the Arctic does not play a key role in national security for the U.S. nor has it offered any sufficiently viable economic opportunities. As a result, the U.S. has not been very concerned with the Arctic region and has not invested significantly in Arctic capabilities or infrastructure. Disappointingly, yet unsurprisingly, rather than the potentially disastrous effects of climate change, it has been the recent Sino-Russian cooperation that has finally drawn the United States’ attention to the region.
In a speech at the Arctic Council in 2019, Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, did not directly refer to the issue of climate change once. Instead, he chose to highlight the region’s burgeoning economic potential and strategic significance. He stated, “This is America’s moment to stand up as an Arctic nation and for the Arctic’s future… Because far from the barren backcountry that many thought it to be… the Arctic is at the forefront of opportunity and abundance.” Regarding China’s expansion of influence and Russia’s increased militarization, he stated that both nations’ arctic maneuverings would be judged in the context of their behaviours elsewhere in the world, which are currently perceived as aggressive. He warned that Beijing’s activity risked creating a ‘new South China Sea’ situation in the region while he criticized Russia’s military build-up as “destabilizing.” Terms such as these serve to demonstrate how the U.S.A. is now considering the Arctic as yet another arena where the competition is increasing.
Increasing political tensions and military presence, according to SIPRI, negatively affect the security of the arctic population. They note that “the growing number and scale of military exercises continues to have an adverse impact on indigenous lands.” Military exercises in the Arctic further exacerbate ecological problems in the region, also. According to SIPRI, the Russian military has been polluting the Russian Arctic islands for many decades, unchecked. They state that “the increasing military presence in the Arctic, and the Russian Arctic in particular, could lead to further environmental risk and pollution, including large-scale incidents.”
Framing this as a purely political or strategical issue allows countries like the United States to overlook the dynamic role of climate change in this situation. This perspective treats climate change and the melting of the Arctic ice as an unavoidable present and an inevitable future. This is not helpful. Rather than enacting effective policies to combat climate change, the main arctic actors are being distracted by short-term gain—in this case of resources and influence—at the cost of the long-term effects of climate change. In order to protect the Arctic, its inhabitants, ecosystems, and those of the rest of the world, more independent regulation and observation needs to be carried out in the Far North.