Melting Point: The Complications Of The Melting Arctic Ocean


Responding to climate change has been at the top of much of the world’s to-do list lately, particularly that of the United Nations after their Climate Change Summit in September. However, a different approach to climate change is also growing in relevance: members of the Arctic Council— Scandinavian nations, Denmark (the colonizer of Greenland), Canada, the United States, and Russia—could have a lot to utilize if climate change causes the melting of Arctic sea ice. The Arctic terrain is constantly changing—huge amounts of oil are widely believed to be under its melting ice—and cooperation on how to either prevent or utilize this is in the best interest of all Arctic Council members. However, it has been and will continue to be difficult for Arctic Council members to cooperate on the issue of utilizing the Arctic Ocean as time goes on; this is because their current institution lacks solid regulations regarding the ocean. Additionally, the Arctic nations have conflicting interests in the area, which will make it hard to agree on a distribution of Arctic waters.

Though they are united together as the Arctic Council, there are no institutions between these nations that have been serious enough to enforce cooperation in the area; therefore, cooperating on the current Arctic issues will be difficult because the nations are used to acting in their own interests without consequences. Unlike the Antarctic Treaty, a treaty signed in the 1960s between the Arctic Council to agree on how the Arctic is utilized, and it’s security regulations that have been upheld since its implementation, the Arctic Council’s biannual meetings mainly focus on the preservation of the area but stray away from military and security issues in the region.

Many security issues arise because the Arctic Council lacks enforcement and efficient accountability of its members. For example, in 2007, Russian submarines placed a Russian flag on the North Pole in a territory separate from its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the area offshore that it is legally allowed to claim under United Nations law; this action lead to a backlash from the other members, but no consequences, according to Rutgers. Additionally, regarding EEZs, there have been many requests over time by nations like Canada, Norway, and Russia to extend theirs or reduce others to no avail. The possibility of more issues like this arising in the future is high, especially as the Arctic continues to melt and nations get more opportunities to utilize the area; the possibility of these conflicts escalating or turning violent is also high, especially when newfound resources like oil come into the picture—these possibilities necessitate a new agreement like the Antarctic Treaty.

Though the Arctic Council members will be similarly affected by climate change in the region, the Arctic nations have also historically had conflicting interests in the Arctic. For example, the Arctic Council nations share the goal to prevent climate change in the Arctic due to their UN membership, but the size of their commitment differs by country. Russia, for one, has been scoping out the area since the beginning of this century and “‘envisions under Putin a northern sea route that is essentially a toll road,” increasing its icebreaker fleet to achieve this—which shows its willingness to put economic gain over climate change according to Politico. Conversely, Norway has publicly declared its dedication to preventing and mitigating climate change in the region because it has more of an incentive to—its citizens are more directly affected by it. The Guardian reported that Norway’s Arctic archipelago, Svalbard, is deemed one of the “fastest-heating places on Earth,” on track to displace its population and negatively transform its economy. 

There are many options for the Arctic Council members to cooperate on this issue and establish a fair and secure way to distribute the Arctic waters and their new opportunities—while also factoring in climate change, one of the UN’s main focuses at the moment. The best option would undoubtedly be an agreement similar to the Antarctic Treaty of 1961 that regulates the global usage of Antarctica and defines economic, scientific, and political utilization. It has been upheld rather well since its implementation. An Arctic Council agreement would similarly need to find a balance between economic utilization of the Arctic’s resources and preservation of the area in the face of extreme climate change; even though climate change’s mass melting in the region in the area will be economically beneficial to the nations, it cannot be ignored as it is on the United Nations’ agenda to prevent and mitigate it. Possible agreements could be: giving nations full defined access to the entire Arctic for their economic goals, giving them some access and barring the rest of the Arctic off to preserve it, or entirely barring it off to prevent its human-made erosion fully. 

The Arctic nations also all stand to benefit from the Arctic’s melting ice and the economic benefits it will create, as “13% of Earth’s [oil] reserves lie under it” according to Live Science, but the amount that each country benefits due to their location and technology differs. Russia, Canada, and the United States have many other methods of income besides Arctic-related endeavours, whereas the Scandinavian states intensely rely on Arctic fishing and transportation routes. Because of this, implementing a solid and defined agreement in preparation for the Arctic melting entirely (which is bound to happen, scientists predict) is extremely important. The needs of each country with a claim to the Arctic must be addressed and accounted for in writing so that no skirmishes occur (like the Russian flag scandal), and so the area can be both preserved and utilized in a way that all can agree upon. Additionally, as the prospect of new transportation routes and access to oil became more widely publicized, the presence of countries without a historical claim to the Arctic, like China, greatly increased in the area. In 2018, China created Arctic policy where it “proclaimed itself as a ‘near-Arctic state,’ a label that has since invited controversy,” Defense News reported. The presence of military powers like China, Russia, and the United States (one of which, China, does not have an agreed-upon claim to the Arctic in the first place) could turn the Arctic into a violent war zone over resources that would affect citizens and countries all around the world—similar to resource/oil conflicts in other regions like the Middle East—unless a treaty is promptly created and applied.

Cooperation on the issue of managing and distributing the Arctic Ocean (particularly in the form of a solid agreement like the Antarctic Treaty) between Arctic Council members will continue to be complicated. However, it is essential as the Arctic opens up many opportunities that countries around the world will want to use to their advantage. There is also a great unknown factor about the future of climate change in the region—even if an agreement is created, there will be a higher risk of commitment problems if the ice keeps melting and opens up new potential. It is in the best interest of the Arctic Council members to create robust regulations, even if doing so will not be easy.

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