- Melting Ice and Drifting Interests: Dawn of a New Arctic Era?
Three events have significantly influenced recent debates on Arctic affairs. First, in its 2000 Petroleum Assessment report the United States Geological Survey postulated that a high percentage of the World’s untapped energy resources is located north of the Polar Circle. The ensuing surge in public interest increased further when a Russian submersible planted the Russian flag on the seabed near the North Pole in August 2007. The maneuver, albeit irrelevant from a legal perspective, came to symbolize renewed attention to a region that had been largely forgotten since the end of the Cold War. In the wake of the controversy that this gesture generated, many practitioners and scholars promulgated visions of a “race” for the northern reaches of the world. The potential for territorial conflicts became, alongside alarmist predictions of a “gold rush,” one of the most widely and contentiously discussed subjects in Arctic affairs. The third event—a record decline in summer sea ice during the same year—signaled the changing physical geographies of the Arctic. Given the unprecedented retreat and thinning of ice, numerous scientists heralded the dawn of a seasonally ice-free Arctic by 2030, or sooner.
The ramifications of these events are substantial and raise the following questions: Will the beginning of the twenty-first century usher in a new Arctic era, one in which the formerly “frozen backyard” reemerges as a political hot spot? If so, what will be its decisive feature? A clash over controlling Arctic riches? Military confrontations in disputed areas? And finally, how will “softer” environmental matters persist in discussions dominated by hard-power considerations?
A New Economic Frontier?
For some, the answer to the first question seems obvious, particularly in economic terms. Holding vast amounts of oil, gas, and other resources, the Arctic—commonly defined as the region north of 66° latitude—is what Lawson Brigham has called a “storehouse of natural riches.” While detailed information on energy reserves remains sparse, estimates from the United States Geological Survey suggest that as much as 30 percent of the world’s untapped natural gas and more than 10 percent of the oil may be found in Arctic soils. With rapid environmental change and technological advances, many of the hitherto inaccessible resources will be increasingly within reach. Against this backdrop, authors like Scott Borgerson have argued that the region could slide into an “armed mad dash.” Awakened by the possibility of an energy bonanza, the five Arctic coastal states—Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, the Russian Federation, and the United States—could escalate the ways in which they pursue conflicting claims over resource-rich areas.
Upon closer inspection, however, there are at least three reasons to be critical of such projections. First, the bulk of resource-bearing sediments lie within sovereign territories, clearly determining which coastal state holds exploitation rights. Second, industry interest—crucial for resource development—is increasing but still fragile. This has to do with high operation costs, which stem from harsh conditions and geographical remoteness. By the same token, investment policies in some states, such as Russia, are difficult to predict, and energy companies must engage in negotiations when drilling projects take place in areas governed by indigenous peoples. Finally, external factors such as oil price and reservoir discoveries elsewhere make projections unreliable. Taken together, notions of a full-blown race for Arctic resources seem far-fetched. This is not to discount the possibility of tensions. As oil and gas are unevenly distributed across the Arctic, some actors will profit more than others and might be inclined to use energy resources for political leverage.
Further, melting sea ice has fueled speculations about the prospects of Polar shipping. In 2007, the fabled Northwest Passage along the coast of North America opened for the first time. As a result, commentators have delighted in noting how passing Polar waters would greatly reduce distances compared to navigating traditional routes. Yet, as with the case of energy, several myths have blurred the analysis of what can be expected. Sailing along the sprawling coasts of Arctic states or through the Arctic Ocean is expensive, owing to specific requirements for equipment and personnel training and insurance and disaster response, as well as to port infrastructure. What is more, although the term “ice-free” suggests otherwise, floating ice and extreme weather events will continue to pose challenges for marine operations. Different types of shipping also need to be taken into account when evaluating industry interest. Cargo ships, for example, follow rigid timetables, making trans-Arctic navigation at reduced speed less appealing. In contrast, bulk shipping companies are more flexible in terms of seasonality and time demands, as Frédéric Lasserre has astutely observed. In this regard, traffic is not likely to be heavy in the near future. While the Arctic promises considerable development opportunities, assumptions that the region represents a new economic frontier underestimate the environmental, technical, and financial factors at play.
A Theater of Military Confrontations?
Will the Arctic become a theater of military confrontations, as many fear? There can be no doubt that greater access and longer navigation periods imply a number of security challenges for state and non-state actors alike. For instance, whereas increased shipping can positively impact local ports and communities, ice-free coastlines also entail greater exposure to maritime terrorism. From a state’s perspective, differences emerge concerning the delineation of Outer Continental Shelves and the question of who has authority over melting straits. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides a comprehensive legal framework within which these issues are addressed. As set out in Article 76, coastal states wishing to extend their boundaries beyond the 200 nautical mile line of the Exclusive Economic Zone may submit information to the UN Continental Shelf Commission. On the basis of scientific evidence, Russia and Norway were the first Arctic states to invoke this provision, contending that swaths of Arctic seabed constitute natural prolongations of their territories. Needless to say, this process is costly and dependent on each country’s technological capabilities for detailed seabed mapping.
Heated talks of a “land rush” that could create new battlegrounds in the Arctic have largely focused on areas where territorial aspirations overlap. One of the most noteworthy cases is the Barents Sea, where Russia has resumed strategic bomber patrols. Although such military assertiveness demands close attention, the potential is low for an Arctic “great game” in the near future. Unresolved disputes have persisted for many decades, and so far all Arctic states have demonstrated their willingness to abide by the laws now in place.
Arctic Environmental Change: The Obvious Neglected?
The emergence of these new and old challenges has fostered debates over the ways in which environmental arrangements and political agendas dynamically shape one another. A notable irony is that the region’s economic outlook hinges upon dramatic changes in Arctic ecosystems. In other words, the more sea ice melts, the greater the access to its hidden riches. Conversely, transformations, including extreme weather events and thawing permafrost, present obstacles to resource development.
While the Arctic exhibits a history of high natural variability, most studies suggest that a long-term shift is indeed taking place. This shift is linked in part to anthropogenic factors originating well beyond the region. Irrespective of whether a “tipping point” has been reached, as some assert, changes in the physical geography create not only opportunities but a myriad of vexing problems, many of which threaten the lifestyles of indigenous populations. Protecting and managing the Arctic as an area of common interest is thus a critical issue. This has been recognized by the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum established in 1996 for the purpose of promoting cooperation among Arctic governments and peoples. In addition, a vast array of bilateral agreements and international regimes concerning, for example, biodiversity provide foundations for environmental governance.
But is this patchwork sufficient to effectively manage what has often been neglected? Opponents hold that the Arctic is threatened by lacunae that exist within current legal and institutional frameworks. They claim that a regional treaty inspired by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty should be negotiated. While rethinking current regulatory regimes of cooperation and environmental protection is necessary, it is highly unlikely that Arctic states will accept supplementary, legally binding documents. During the 2008 Ilulissat Conference, the five coastal states were reluctant to accept additional constraints. This can be read as shying away from the imposition of greater responsibilities, but legally binding regimes often involve protracted and less flexible bureaucracies, which, in turn, could hinder protection where immediate action is required.
A New Arctic Era?
With the effects of climate change marking the beginning of the end of Arctic isolation, there can be no doubt that a new era is dawning. The “age of the Arctic”—to borrow a term coined by Oran Young—will be driven by complex and interrelated sets of factors tied to economic opportunities and security concerns over a region that is becoming increasingly accessible. Yet, contrary to alarmist visions of a new “Cold War,” Arctic affairs will not be marked by violent conflict, particularly not in the short or medium term. This does not mean that competition and nonviolent conflict will not surface, but rather that such conflict will very likely remain at acceptable levels, only rarely involving aggressive military posturing.
To be sure, Russia’s flag-planting has catapulted the Arctic back into the orbit of geopolitics. Simplified readings of symbolic gestures, energy deposits, and jurisdictional disputes, however, belittle the reality of Arctic affairs. They not only overlook potentially serious damage to underlying diplomatic relations, as illustrated by some commentators’ use of “us-them” dichotomies when referring to Western Arctic states and Russia, they also deflect attention from the challenge of preserving the Arctic’s environment. Pessimistic analyses risk heating up the debate in ways that hamper discussions of collective interests by shifting emphasis away to hard-power considerations. As a result, short-term parochial strategies override collective long-term interests. Given that rapid changes easily outpace the capacity of institutions to deal with them, there is a need to effectively address tensions between wishes for economic development and for environmental protection. In essence, the Arctic, caught in uncertainty and change, provides a conspicuous reminder that climate change is not only about opportunities and risks but also about our responsibility to protect one of the planet’s most fragile and unique environments.
Elisa Burchert is an associate with the Weatherhead Center’s Program on Transatlantic Relations. She is also a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Heidelberg University, Germany. Her research interests are focused on U.S.-European cooperation on climate change and energy, the geopolitics of energy, and political philosophy.