The Geopolitical Game in the Arctic

How rising temperatures can cause rising tensions

The Arctic is experiencing rapid changes in the environment. In 2019, Alaska saw a highly unseasonal 32 Celsius heatwave, fuelling fires that released roughly three times more carbon than the state emits annually from burning fossil fuels.

Arctic air temperature is also rising at twice the pace of the global average. This is caused by feedback loops that amplify warming, meaning “the loss of reflective snow and ice means more solar energy will be absorbed in the ground and ocean, warming the earth, causing more snow and ice to melt.”

Melting Arctic glaciers, led by the Greenland ice sheet, are the biggest contributors to rising sea levels and are rapidly losing mass.

Just this month, polar scientists released an assessment of the Greenland ice sheet. The Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-Comparison Exercise (IMBIE) reanalysed data from satellites between 1992 and 2018, measuring thickness, flow and gravity and then combining the observations with the most recent weather and climate models.

The study concluded:

  • Ice is being lost seven times faster than in the 1990s. Data from 1992 showed annual ice melt equivalent to 1mm of sea-level rise per decade, but the current figure is 7mm.
  • Since the start of the study period, Greenland has lost 3.8 trillion tonnes of ice.

2019 ice loss from the sheet is expected to top 370 billion tonnes, far above the 250 billion ton annual average.

While the environmental impacts are obvious, what do they mean for new interests in the region?

New Trade Routes

One of the most important issues comes from the emergence of new sea routes. These routes were previously unnavigable but are now opening up as a result of melting ice. They are hotly contested because they provide companies with the chance to minimise travel time and maximise profits.

While such routes have been open for some time, it’s expected that they will remain open for longer periods throughout the year as more ice melts and takes longer to reappear. Some believe that in the not too distant future, the routes may be navigable all year round.

For example, the Northern Sea Route — a passage north of Russia — allows travel time from Europe to Asia to fall significantly.

The World Economic Forum noted that the largest shipping company in the world, Maersk, are exploring possibilities to regularly utilise the Northern Sea Route instead of having to travel south through the Suez Canal.

This journey reduces the distance by 40 per cent and the company has already partnered with a Russian icebreaker company, suggesting their intention to pursue this trade route.

While it is worth noting that this is expected to reduce emissions from shipping due to lesser fuel requirements, it creates an almost laughably paradoxical scenario — to contribute less to climate change, shipping companies must exploit a route only open due to the impacts of climate change.

More notably is the Northwest Passage. This route passes by the top of Canada, a region where thick ice has previously prevented access. Commercial feasibility is expected to increase, and trade flows will rapidly rise.

Canada claims sovereignty over the Passage and has publicly stated that it expects ships from other countries to ask for permission before using the route. However, several European nations, alongside the US, claim that they are international waters.

Such globally significant economic opportunities create a conflict of interests, with the interrelation between climate change, financial gain and geopolitics pushing its way to the forefront of the regional agenda.

Polar Politics

The founding of the Arctic Council in 1996 brought together eight members — Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Russia, Canada and the United States. To ensure those on the frontline of a rapidly changing environment have a voice, six indigenous groups also have permanent membership to the Council.

The Council was established to enable cooperation on common Arctic issues, especially sustainable development and environmental protection, deliberately leaving security affairs off its agenda.

The Ottawa Declaration — the agreement that set up the Arctic Council — includes specific notes saying that the Council should not be dealing with matters related to military security.

It is currently impossible to ignore the changes in approach to the region, with several states viewing the Arctic as a central feature to their security strategy.

While the Danish Arctic strategy aims to dispel the notion of a race for the Arctic and Sweden’s strategy hopes to ensure security tensions are low, it seems as though the superpowers have a different idea.

In a speech at the Arctic Council Summit in May of this year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that:

“the region has become an arena for power and for competition. And the eight Arctic states must adapt to this new future.”

This was of special significance as it was the first time such a narrative had been presented so publicly.

No doubt that the security strategies of Arctic states and other superpowers include such discussions behind closed doors but, as one paper put it, Pompeo

“broke both Arctic taboos: he hailed climate change as an economic opportunity rather than a threat and called the Arctic an arena for power and competition rather than science and cooperation.”

However, it is by no means just the US showing increasing interest.

Russia is zeroing in on the Northern Sea Route, claiming it as their own and aiming to rapidly increase the number of goods transported through the route over the coming years. The Russian Arctic provides significant boosts to their economy relative to how few people inhabit the region.

Russia’s military presence there is also growing, having invested heavily in new infrastructure, technology and increasing the number of military bases. Elsewhere, there is considerable Russian presence in Svalbard, a large Norwegian territory in the far north.

This summit seemingly kickstarted the ramping up of military security concerns in 2019.

In November, Denmark placed Greenland top of its national security agenda, topping both cybercrime and terrorism. The location of Greenland makes it strategically beneficial and a useful middle ground between North America and Europe. The US already has an airbase on the West coast, used as an early warning system in case of missile attacks.

The major business interest expressed in Greenland causes growing Danish concern, most notably the desire to buy Greenland expressed by President Trump earlier this year. The mineral-rich landscape of Greenland has drawn mining deals from China and continues to be a region of high desirability.

The head of the Danish Defence Intelligence Service noted that focus is switching to Greenland because a “power game is unfolding” between global superpowers.

China has also been vocal in its interests and has already established economic deals. As part of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, China has invested in Russian liquefied natural gas and established facilities in the Arctic.

Russia — China partnerships have also been established to develop the Northern Sea Route, the so-called Polar Silk Road strategy hopes to benefit enormously from shipping. China has signed trade deals with Iceland, invested in multiple natural resource projects in Russia and built a research station in Svalbard.

It is obvious that the Arctic is certainly important to the superpowers and the growing regional military presence reflects this.

Arctic geopolitics is here to stay. Climate change will exacerbate this. The economic utility of melting sea ice and increased accessibility to natural resources attracts global superpowers beyond just those nearby.

As the cat and mouse game of Arctic expansion begins to ramp up, it is clear that security issues must be discussed. While such dialogue is outside of the scope of the Arctic Council, other forums must be established to tackle the challenges rather than turning a blind eye to them.

It is imperative that action is taken sooner rather than later to avoid potential conflict.

Thoughts on the environment, psychology and the future

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