A Warmer Arctic Presents Challenges and Opportunities
As Arctic ice melts, we can physically see glaciers retreating. But what we can’t yet see is the exact effect climate change will have on the environment, humans, economies, and national security. Less ice for longer periods each year will likely bring opportunities and related challenges as Arctic and non-Arctic states jockey for position.
A new report, “The New Arctic: Navigating the Realities, Possibilities, and Problems,” from the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy (ISD) at Georgetown University, takes a closer look at the implications of Arctic warming, what can be done to mitigate risk, and how to take advantage of new opportunities. The report was the third in a series on the “New Global Commons: Emerging Diplomatic Challenges,” which is funded through the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Bridging the Gap grant. The report provides a series of guiding principles and policy recommendations to help countries navigate new Arctic realities.
Repercussions Extend Beyond the Arctic
The Arctic is drastically changing and there is no turning back. Recently, the UN Environment Program noted that a 3°- to 5°Celsius rise in Arctic temperature is now likely by 2050. Nowhere else are the effects of climate change and what it means for economies, the environment, geopolitics, and security more pronounced than in the Arctic.
One must keep in mind three overarching points about the Arctic:
- It has local, regional, and global implications: Even countries with no direct Arctic claims have begun to show interest in the region. For some, this reflects concerns about anticipated climate change-induced effects elsewhere in the world. Other countries see long-term opportunities in resource extraction or the promise of polar shipping routes.
- The Arctic is facing multiple issues: Locals are concerned about coastal erosion, loss of traditional livelihoods, and the dual-edged prospect of increased tourism. Governments within the Arctic zone face the broader challenge of installing new infrastructure and governance frameworks. Global issues include improved resilience and prediction capabilities for rising sea levels and new and more volatile weather patterns.
- Surprise is the new normal: The region’s environmental conditions and ecosystems remain highly volatile. The ongoing, drastic climatic changes make it impossible to predict with certainty what is to come.
Opportunities and Challenges Abound
The warming Arctic creates a number of implications as sea ice melts and the region continues to “open up.” For one, the foreign policy and diplomacy dimensions of the Arctic are fast becoming more complex. Russia’s increased presence and pace of activities and growing interest from China raise concerns for the United States and others about Russian and Chinese intentions. Three issues will be particularly important in coming years.
The first is resource extraction. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Arctic could contain 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil, or 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of undiscovered oil. Major resource extraction will take time, though, due to issues of profitability and scant regional infrastructure. Exploration and extraction also raise environmental and safety red flags—including the need for comprehensive plans to address potential oil spills and to develop enhanced search and rescue capabilities.
Second, the emergence of new sea lanes could shorten transit times and offer significant commercial advantages for nations like China. By one estimate, ships taking the polar route from Shanghai to Hamburg, instead of the traditional Indian Ocean route, would shave off 2,800 nautical miles. An increasingly navigable Arctic particularly attracts Russia. Their Northern Sea Route is a key waterway for Russian domestic shipping and international commerce that stretches across 3,000 miles and seven time zones. The anticipated rise in regional shipping raises other concerns. Any incident in the region could affect multiple coasts, “and it would take days or even weeks to reach a vessel in distress.” The United States and others are relatively ill prepared to operate in the region.
Finally, national security and geopolitics are beginning to play a more prominent role in the region. To date, all sides have been cooperating through the Arctic Council’s consensus-based approach, despite global geopolitical tensions. But as tit-for-tat military exercises and Chinese attempts to horn in on airports and scientific dual-use facilitiesincrease tension and mistrust, there is no guarantee this jockeying can be contained.
Paving the Way Forward
When designing policies for the New Arctic, the ISD report notes that the overarching goal for the U.S. and other interested parties is to preserve the Arctic’s de-politicized and relatively de-militarized status while balancing economic benefits and environmental integrity, in concert with the needs and views of local communities. With this endpoint in mind, as a first step, Washington needs to reiterate the critical importance of the Arctic region to U.S. strategic and economic interests, to include investment in structures and staff to support scientific study and diplomatic outreach commensurate with its importance.
On the scientific side, academics and governments need to step up shared research and knowledge to encourage effective Arctic policymaking. On a larger scale, governments and scientists need to build upon the Arctic scientific ministerial meetings that have taken place since 2016. Such collaboration enhances the relationship between science and policy, and regular meetings of this group will help underpin the implementation of realistic and strategic Arctic policies.
On the security side, the United States and other interested nations must gather intel to better understand the interests, priorities, and actions of relevant Arctic stakeholders. It will be important to address and discuss Russia’s endgame. The United States and other Arctic allies need to understand what an increased Chinese presence in the Arctic means. At the same time, the United States and others must build partnerships with allies and adversaries alike, both formally and through less formal dialogues. Finally, in-depth discussions on the next steps for the Arctic Council are needed. While it has successfully steered the Arctic for over 20 years, new realities have created new challenges. Arctic Council member states must consider whether the Council’s current form is still the one best suited to take on these challenges.
Ultimately, while the effects of climate change cannot be reversed, we still have time to manage the effects of these changes. Steps need to be taken now to ensure that the exploitation of this new global commons does not create a new global source of conflict.
Learn More: Wilson Center Webcast: The New Arctic: Navigating the Realities, Possibilities, and Problems