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CLIMATE AND OCEANS

How Climate Change Could Reshape Geopolitics Around The Arctic

The Arctic is warming at an alarming rate – twice as fast as the rest of the planet – and according to a new report, those changes will be a key driver of geopolitics in the coming years.

As the rapidly melting ice unlocks commercial opportunities in shipping, tourism and oil and gas extraction, the world’s largest economies are jockeying for control of the region. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the melting of the Arctic is a “bellwether for how climate change may reshape geopolitics in the post-Cold War era.”

The widely held notion that climate change will occur gradually over the 21st century, allowing ample time for society to adapt, is belied by the unprecedented pace of both climate change and policy developments in the Arctic today. Such rapid changes will challenge governments’ abilities to anticipate and diplomatically resolve international disputes within the region.

Accelerating changes in the region are causing sea ice to melt at a rate exceeding scientists’ predictions.  The absence of ice will open up strategic waterways, such as the Northwest Passage, for longer periods of time and allow more opportunity for activities like offshore oil exploration that require open water. Analysts believe the economic impact could be significant – new and expanded shipping routes can significantly reduce the transit time between Asia, North America and Europe, and oil companies like Royal Dutch Shell are eager to unlock the “great opportunity” for fossil fuels they believe lies beneath the pristine Arctic waters.

But increased opportunity will also lead to increased conflict. In analyzing recent policy statements and actions of the Arctic states, the report notes that while the countries seem “focused on building a cooperative security environment in the region,” there is an “apparently contradictory trend toward modernizing their military forces in the Arctic … Consequently, if political cooperation in the region should sour, most of the Arctic nations will have forces that are prepared to compete in a hostile environment.”

Further complicating Arctic claims is the absence of the U.S. in the Law of the Sea treaty, or UNCLOS, which details the rights and responsibilities of nations when it comes to use and protection of the world’s oceans. The treaty also provides an important framework for resolving territorial disputes in the Arctic.  UNCLOS is ratified by every other developed country and is supported by a broad coalition that includes five former Republican secretaries of state, the Chamber of Commerce, and major environmental groups.  America’s failure to ratify this key treaty puts us at an immediate disadvantage in frontier regions like the Arctic.

And what of the environmental implications?  With more vessels trying to navigate the narrow straits and channels of the Northwest Passage, commercial fishing vessels, cruise ships, and drilling rigs operating in the previously inaccessible Arctic Ocean, the risk of a collision or oil spill increase exponentially.

As detailed in the Center for American Progress report, Putting a Freeze on Arctic Ocean Drilling: America’s Inability to Respond to an Oil Spill in the Arctic, the U.S. lags far behind other Arctic nations in infrastructure and preparedness to respond to a major event.  There are no U.S. Coast Guard stations north of the Arctic Circle, and we currently operate just one functional icebreaking vessel. Alaska’s tiny ports and airports are incapable of supporting an extensive and sustained airlift effort. The region even lacks such basics as paved roads and railroads.

This dearth of infrastructure would severely hamper the ability to transport the supplies and personnel required for any large-scale emergency response effort. Furthermore, the extreme and unpredictable weather conditions complicate transportation, preparedness, and cleanup of spilled oil to an even greater degree.

The co-author of the C2ES report noted that “a prevalent theme in nearly all the policy announcements was the need to protect the region’s environment in the face of rapid climate change and increased economic activity.”  However, it is difficult to imagine how forces as strong as rapid climate change and increased economic activity will lead to anything other than environmental destruction.

And as NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco explained last year, the potential ramifications of this industrialization extend far beyond the region itself:

Well, what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. It has huge implications for the global system. And one of the reasons people are legitimately concerned about melting of sea ice are the uncertainties associated with the consequences of that for the rest of the planet. We’re entering a no-analogue world here. We’ve never experienced the kinds of changes that we’re seeing now in the Arctic and elsewhere. And we don’t fully understand what the consequences of that are going to be.

Much of the Arctic remains a mystery.  We do know that the effects of climate change are being felt more strongly in the region than any other part of the world. And with more industrialization in this region, those changes — both environmental changes and geopolitical changes — will only accelerate.

Kiley Kroh is the Associate Director of Ocean Communications for the Center for American Progress. This is a Climate Progress cross-post.

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