Climate Change & International Security: The Arctic as a Bellwether

Climate Change & International Security: The Arctic as a Bellwether

May 2012

by Rob Huebert, Heather Exner-Pirot, Adam Lajeunesse, and Jay Gulledge

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Executive Summary

In its most recent assessment of global climate change, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences concluded, “A strong body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems.” Impacts and rates of change are greatest in the Arctic, where temperatures have been increasing at about twice the global rate over the past four decades. The rapid decline in summer sea ice cover in the past decade has outpaced scientific projections and is drawing international attention to emerging commercial development and transport opportunities previously blocked by the frozen sea. The Arctic is therefore a bellwether for how climate change may reshape geopolitics in the post–Cold War era.

The trend toward seasonally open waters is driving increased interest and investment in oil and gas exploration, shipping, and fishing in the Arctic. The recent economic recession has not affected these developments significantly, as they were always intended to be middle- to long-term developments following the progression of sea ice retreat. Indeed, high oil prices and advances in technology continue to support the drive toward offshore drilling in Arctic waters. The global economy, which has begun to show signs of recovery, is likely to rebound long before oil and gas exploration and shipping could be scaled up in the Arctic. China, India and the rest of the developing world’s growing middle classes will need oil and gas and other resources, and the world’s shipping routes are already so congested that the development of northern shipping routes is not a question of if, but when.

In response to these changes, many of the Arctic states have begun to re-examine their military capabilities to operate in the Arctic region. Some have started to rebuild their military forces, while most of the other states are drawing up plans to begin the rebuilding process. Multilateral organizations and non-Arctic states are also looking for new roles in the Arctic. All of these actors are attempting to come to terms with the meaning of Arctic security, a concept that was relatively simple during the icy decades of the Cold War. Recent national policy developments arising from the effects of climate change on the Arctic commons demonstrate that climate change is indeed a national and international security interest in the traditional strategic sense.

As the emerging Arctic security environment is in a very early stage of development, whether it will ultimately be predominantly cooperative or predominantly competitive remains an open question. Although the Arctic states invariably emphasize their desire to maintain a cooperative environment, several have stated that they will defend their national interests in the region if necessary. To gauge the geopolitical winds in the Arctic, this study catalogs and analyzes dozens of major policy statements and actions by the Arctic states, other states with Arctic interests, and multilateral organizations between 2008 and 2012.

As a framework for interpreting the totality of these statements and actions, we compare geopolitical developments to date with three future security scenarios posited by the Arctic Council in its Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment 2009 Report. We adopt these scenarios as testable hypotheses for the purposes of this study:

  • Hypothesis 1: There is no emerging security environment and the circumpolar states have no new interests that would increase competition or conflict in the region. If this hypothesis is correct, a close examination of the actions of the circumpolar world should reveal no significant new foreign and defense policies and defense procurement decisions in relation to the Arctic.
  • Hypothesis 2: While showing renewed interest in the Arctic, the interested states are committed to developing and strengthening multilateral instruments of cooperation. New military capabilities are directed towards building local constabulary capacity and largely eschew escalation of war-fighting capability.
  • Hypothesis 3: Increasing accessibility to Arctic resources because of climate change, along with a growing and increasingly modern military presence of strategic rivals in the region, becomes a recipe for competition and potential conflict. Under this hypothesis, the circumpolar states should be actively examining their core interests in the region, expressing concern over what other states are planning or doing in the region, and developing more assertive northern defense postures, including rebuilding their northern war-fighting capabilities. It is also expected that the various actors would be commencing the process of developing new defensive relationships and either strengthening old alliances or building new ones.

We assess which of these hypotheses most closely resembles the behavior of the key actors as revealed in their statements and actions. On the basis of the prevailing scenario(s), we consider the potential for instability and conflict in the Arctic and offer recommendations on how the states should proceed to ensure the region develops in a cooperative and peaceful manner.

Main Findings

Finding 1: Unprecedented national attention to Arctic policy.

A confluence of major policy announcements between 2008–2012 have followed Russia planting its flag at the North Pole in August 2007, the same week that Canada announced significant new Arctic military investments. Since then, major Arctic policy announcements have been made by Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, the United States, the European Union, the Nordic countries (Nordic Supportive Defence Structures, NORDSUP) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It is unprecedented to have numerous, major policy announcements—not just for the Arctic but for international affairs in general—from so many major players in such a short timeframe.

Finding 2: Emphasis on environmental security.

By 2005 all Arctic governments and many others had come to officially accept that climate change was melting the Arctic ice cover, which meant that the Arctic was becoming more accessible to both the Arctic states and to the international community. This new accessibility raised two main concerns for the Arctic states. First was the need to maintain environmental security. In this context, environmental security can be understood as avoiding or mitigating acts leading to environmental damage or deterioration that could violate the interests of states and their populations, in particular their northern and northern indigenous peoples. The need to maintain the region’s environmental integrity in the face of increased economic activity was a prevalent theme in much of the Canadian, American, and Russian documentation. The second concern was the need for a constabulary capacity to monitor who arrives in each state’s waters and what they are doing there. Most of the Arctic states said they had inadequate means to police the area. Much of the proposed Arctic security policy has been justified as improving the states’ abilities to meet these new environmental and constabulary needs.

Finding 3: Desire for cooperation but resolve to protect national interests.

In most of their statements, the states have reiterated their commitment to collegiality and the principles of international law to ensure that an accessible Arctic is developed in a peaceful and cooperative manner. On the other hand, many of the Arctic states’ actions and statements make it clear that they intend to develop the military capacity to protect their national interests in the region. This approach implies that while diplomacy and cooperation are preferred, the Arctic nations will reserve the right to use unilateral force to defend their interests if necessary.

Finding 4: Remilitarization of the Arctic.

While the two previous findings suggest that the Arctic states are focused on building a cooperative security environment in the region, there is a third, apparently contradictory trend toward modernizing their military forces in the Arctic. Some have already begun rebuilding their Arctic military capabilities, and most of the others are drawing up plans to do so. 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.

Finding 5: Non-Arctic states and organizations seek roles in the Arctic.

The EU and NATO have been examining the issues of governance and security in the Arctic. NATO’s initial focus appears to be on improving coordination of security-related issues, such as search and rescue. Given the importance of the region to NATO members such as Canada, Norway and the United States, it seems likely that NATO will remain engaged in the region. The EU’s interest is framed in the context of ensuring that new governance mechanisms are designed to include the interests of all European states. The EU has also issued policy statements that place a strong emphasis on protecting the environment. Separate from the EU, France has announced that it plans to provide its military with some Arctic capabilities. Although it has not expressed geopolitical interest in the Arctic, China plans to increase its scientific research activities in the region and has added a strategic studies department to its Polar Research Institute.

Finding 6: Underlying causes of policy developments.

The principal cause of renewed national interest in the Arctic is the increasing accessibility of Arctic waters resulting from global warming and new maritime technologies. Accessibility leads to the potential for new sea routes or the expansion of old ones, an important issue for both Russia and Canada. Western nations have focused on augmenting scientific research, environmental protection, sustainable development, and a constabulary and military presence. The United States stake in the Arctic is comparatively small, and historically it has tended to act with minimal interest in the region compared with the other Arctic states. Russia has invested tens of billions of dollars in Arctic oil projects, and its recent policy statements and actions suggest that it will act assertively to safeguard its oil wealth and position in the Arctic. Although oil and gas are less central to the core interests of the rest of the circumpolar powers, the importance of Arctic oil will grow for all nations as oil prices continue to rise and the desire for energy security grows.

Conclusions & Recommendations

Taken as a whole, the Arctic policy statements and actions taken since 2008 clearly disprove Hypothesis 1. There can be no doubt that there is renewed national and international interest in the Arctic along both economic and strategic lines. However, distinguishing between Hypothesis 2 and Hypothesis 3 is more difficult, as many of the statements and actions of the polar states indicate both a sincere desire for peaceful cooperation and serious preparations for strong military capabilities to defend core national interests in the region.

While Hypothesis 2 is the preferred outcome of all Arctic states, significant national investments in establishing a modern military capability in the north signals that core national interests are the top priority of most of them. Under these circumstances, competition and conflict (i.e. Hypothesis 3) could become the Arctic reality if cooperative mechanisms cannot keep pace with developments or otherwise prove inadequate to settle international disputes in the region. Continued monitoring of national and international developments in the Arctic will help clarify whether conditions are tipping more toward cooperation or more toward competition. A living component of this study will continue to track these developments over time and can be accessed via the Web at

Maintaining security and peace in the Arctic will require adapting policies and institutions to the emerging environment there. First, the Arctic states need to strengthen existing multilateral institutions and agreements, especially those related to security. The U.S. Department of Defense, for example, wisely advocates the accession of the United States to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which provides an important framework by which to resolve disputes over, for example, the delimitation of the continental shelf in the Arctic. States also need to develop practical bilateral and multilateral agreements whereby their new Arctic capabilities can work together. Where practices develop to allow cooperation, that cooperation is easier to maintain should relations become strained due to factors developing outside of the Arctic. An early example of such practices is the development of a search and rescue treaty, the first legally binding agreement to come out of the Arctic Council, which was signed by member states in May 2011. Joining these multilateral regimes, however, is not enough; Arctic states must renew a commitment to comply with existing obligations and implement their commitments as well.

Second, the Arctic states will need to acknowledge and deal with the renewal of military strength in the Arctic. This need runs counter to the tendency of states to publicly downplay the potential for military conflict in the Arctic in order to emphasize their legitimate desire for cooperation. The Arctic Council should reconsider its existing prohibition on discussing military security issues. Failure to do so may encourage the development of alternative forums such as the “Arctic Five” group of states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States) that met at Ilulissat, Greenland in May 2008 and Quebec, Canada in March 2010. The challenges facing the Arctic are multi-dimensional and require both bilateral solutions, such as the Russian-Norwegian maritime border agreement, as well as a unified international response. A sectoral response to the multitude of issues that are increasingly developing in the region threatens to create a piecemeal, ad hoc governance system that may act to prevent the level of coordination needed to resolve future disputes.

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. The lesson to the rest of the world might be to anticipate changes and adapt and/or react as soon as possible, using new and existing diplomatic tools, before core national interests take center stage and promote competition and possibly conflict. With global warming, time is of the essence, not only for mitigation, but for adaptation at both the community level and the international level.

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