Climate Change's Impact on International Arctic Security

This blog post is cross-posted on the Center for New American Security's National Security blog.

Today we released a new report today titled Climate Change & National Security: The Arctic as a Bellwether. The lead author of the report is Dr. Rob Huebert, Associate Director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. 

Official military doctrine in the United States now holds that “climate change, energy security, and economic stability are inextricably linked.” Nowhere is this linkage more clearly illustrated than in the Arctic, and that’s why we think the region is a bellwether for how climate change may reshape global geopolitics in the post-Cold War era. 

As the planet has warmed over the past few decades, temperatures in the Arctic have been increasing at about twice the global rate. And the Arctic sea ice cover has been shrinking much faster than scientists anticipated. The five smallest sea ice covers ever recorded have all occurred in the past five summers. As a result, the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Archipelago has opened up every summer since 2007, and the Northeast Passage along Russia’s coastline has opened up every summer since 2008.

New and expanded shipping routes through the Arctic can cut the distance to transport goods between Asia, North America, and Europe by up to 4000 miles. We’re seeing increased interest and investment in oil and gas exploration. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of undiscovered oil lies in the Arctic. Russia likely possesses the largest share of any country. There’s also growing interest in tourism and fishing.

As the economic potential of the Arctic becomes more apparent, governments and militaries have begun to reposition themselves. What’s happening in the Arctic is the starkest example yet of the way climate change directly affects international security.  

To understand how governments are responding to the rapid transformation of their Northern borders, we carefully examined recent policy statements and actions of the Arctic states, as well as other interested states and multilateral organizations. A clear starting point was August 2007, when the Russians planted their flag at the North Pole, signaling their intent to extend their sovereign territory as far out to sea as possible. At virtually the same time, Canada announced significant new Arctic military investments aimed at protecting their sovereign control of shipping lanes through the Canadian Archipelago. 

Here are the main findings of our analysis:

  1. Since 2008, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, the United States, the European Union, the Nordic countries and NATO have all made major Arctic policy announcements. So many policy announcements from major players in such a short time frame is highly unusual—not just for the Arctic but for international affairs in general.
  2. 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.
  3. In most statements, the states have emphasized their commitment to cooperation and to the principles of international law. As one example, the five coastal Arctic states—Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States—agreed in the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration to settle any territorial disputes in the Arctic under the principles of the law of the sea. On the other hand, many of the Arctic states’ actions and statements make it clear that they intend to develop the military capacity to act unilaterally, if necessary, to protect their national interests in the region. 
  4. Most of the Arctic states are modernizing their military forces in the Arctic. For example, the United States recently began operating its newest class of fast attack submarines in the Arctic and the Russians have begun building a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines for both fast attack and ballistic missile launching missions. Norway announced plans to purchase 48 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, and both Norway and Denmark have equipped their navies with Arctic combat capabilities. With countries rebuilding their Arctic military capabilities. If political cooperation in the region should sour, most will have forces that are prepared to compete in a hostile environment.
  5. Non-Arctic states and organizations have also begun to consider Arcitic security as well. Of special relevance, NATO has begun to coordinate with its Arctic members on search and rescue. Since Russia views NATO with suspicion, the alliance’s role in the Arctic has the potential to create tensions. 
  6. The principal cause of renewed national interest in the Arctic is the increasing accessibility of Arctic waters. However, interests in the region vary somewhat from country to country. As new sea routes open up, Canada and Russia see their core interests as maintaining sovereignty in their territorial waters, while the United States puts greater emphasis on freedom of the seas for navigation. Russia, meanwhile, has invested tens of billions of dollars in Arctic oil projects, and its recent statements and actions suggest that it will act to safeguard its oil wealth in the region. The importance of Arctic oil will grow for all nations as oil prices continue to rise and the desire for energy security grows.

Although all of the Arctic states emphasize the need for cooperation, most have begun to rebuild their military capabilities beyond a mere policing capacity. At the same time, existing multilateral institutions are too weak to ensure that collegiality will prevail should disagreements become entrenched. Based on our findings, our principal recommendation is that the Arctic states move quickly to strengthen existing multilateral mechanisms before resource competition and core national interests take center stage.

The best way to strengthen multilateral cooperation is for the Arctic Council to lift its ban on discussing military issues. The Council includes all of the Arctic nations and has functioned well in its 16 years. Failure of the Council to manage military issues threatens to create a piecemeal, ad hoc governance system that may prevent the level of coordination needed to resolve future disputes in the Arctic.

Another key step toward maintaining a cooperative geopolitical environment in the Arctic is for the United States to accede to the Law of the Sea treaty. The U.S. military has long supported ratification of the treaty, and as long as the United States is not a member, it is unclear whether it will be eligible to dispute claims by the member states, even if it is willing to adhere to the treaty’s terms. 

At the same time, care must be taken in how multilateral mechanisms are used in the Arctic. For example, if NATO were to play a more assertive role, and if Finland or Sweden were to pursue membership in NATO, Russia might feel isolated or threatened. That’s a situation we should try to avoid.

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. 

If the Arctic is a bellwether for how climate change may reshape global geopolitics in the post-Cold War era, then other countries should watch closely to learn from our successes or failures in managing this new breed of security challenge in the North. 

Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Director of Science & Impacts Program at C2ES.