This essay is dedicated to the United Nations’ Environment Day and Sustainable Development Goal 13. #EnvironmentDay #5June
“The world must act effectively and boldly to curb emissions and implement the Paris Agreement while simultaneously preparing for the reality of an ice-free Arctic.” by Sude ÇAPOĞLU
Philippe Cousteau Jr. once said, “The world cannot live without the Arctic; it affects every living thing on Earth and acts as a virtual thermostat, reflecting sunlight and cooling the planet’’ which emphasizes the significance of the Arctic. Due to its sparse population and limited access to natural resources, the Arctic has been approached in cooperative terms by littoral countries until recently.
Nevertheless, climate change is rapidly turning the Arctic, which encompasses 17 percent of the globe, into a new ground for geopolitical and economic rivalry between major powers such as Russia, the USA, and China.
Lately, with global warming two times faster than anywhere else on Earth, melting Arctic ice opens shipping lanes and unlocks rich resources which are believed to include up to one fourth of the Earth’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves, and also a substantial amount of deposits of rare earth materials used in making smart phones and batteries (Kelly, 2014).
To begin with, the major consequence of melting of Arctic is that new routes will open up between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans which will allow shipping companies to abandon traditional lanes through the Panama and Suez canals. The former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that melting sea is set to open up new “opportunities for trade” by shortening the length of sea voyages from Asia to the West or vice versa by as much as three weeks. The fact that Russians completed such a route, traveling from Norway to South Korea in 30 percent less time than it would have taken to use the traditional Suez Canal, proves this point (Winters, 2018).
Over and above that, melting Arctic ice unlocks rich resources which increases its geopolitical importance. More than 4 million people live at the north of Earth’s Arctic Circle, nearly half of them in Russia and the rest scattered among the seven other northernmost countries – the USA, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland (Roston and Migliozzi, 2017).
As a home to half of the Arctic’s population and most of the region’s land area, Russia has an advantageous access to the Arctic’s economic potential and wants to exploit its geopolitical opportunities. Russia is also eager to strengthen its armed forces in the Arctic, even though its military presence in the region is already larger than that of any other Arctic country (red spots represent Russian bases in the map below, Roston and Migliozzi, 2017). Both the United States and Finland have expressed apprehension over military exercises on the Russia-Finland border (Winters, 2018). In light of the latest Russian invasion of Ukraine, a hot confrontation in the near future seems more likely than ever.
Moreover, the fact that Greenland forms a key corridor for naval operations between the Arctic and the North Atlantic highlights its strategic importance not only to China but to the USA as well (Gönen, 2019). The stakes are evident in Greenland undertaking large expansions at its three airports. China proposed funding the construction, but Denmark stepped in to pay for two of them, after which the former US Defense Secretary James Mattis got involved and pressured for it. The USA was concerned about China militarizing those airstrips if loans are defaulted. The former US President Donald Trump claimed his interest in buying Greenland which was dismissed as an “absurd discussion” by Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen upon which Trump cancelled his visit to Denmark that was supposed to take place during his European tour.
The international legal framework for the Arctic is also quite vague. Currently, the Arctic Council’s decision-making power and the Law of the Sea together make up the framework for regulation of the Arctic. The Arctic Council was formed in 1996 and consists of eight nations that border the Arctic, including the USA, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden. The Arctic Council has no enforcement powers but only acts as a forum for discussing Arctic affairs. Decisions are made on a consensus basis by the Arctic Council with the main directives of representing indigenous peoples and protecting environment.
The 1982 Law of the Sea, a UN –sponsored treaty signed by 167 countries — but not the United States — assists nations determine their maritime rights. Most ownership of the Arctic Ocean is decided in terms of “exclusive economic zones” (EEZs) that extend 200 nautical miles from each country’s shoreline. Within these EEZs, countries are free to explore the ocean’s depths, but not the surface, which is considered international territory (Winters, 2018).
The weak international framework for Arctic regulation, coupled with newfound economic opportunities at the north of the Arctic Circle, overshadows the real issue: the Arctic is melting rapidly. Indigenous villages will wash away into the sea, Arctic animals will run out of habitat and fish populations will decline. A recent article in the Economist draws attention to the possible consequences of thawing permafrost which may lead to landslides and the subsidence of individual buildings, roads, and pipelines. It is estimated that of the 120,000 buildings, 40,000 km of roads and 9,500 km of pipelines currently built on permafrost, up to half are expected to be at high risk by 2060 costing 35 billion USD a year (Economist, 2022).
What happens in the Arctic does not necessarily stay in the Arctic. From a climate change perspective, the loss of sea ice can influence weather patterns at middle latitudes. The effects are unpredictable, ranging from extreme weather events further south to altered patterns in agriculture.
To sum up, as the Arctic offers increased economic and geopolitical attraction, there is an opportunity for nations to collaborate towards common interests as much as the possibility for confrontation. The world must act effectively and boldly to curb emissions and implement the Paris Agreement while simultaneously preparing for the reality of an ice-free Arctic. Since the Arctic Council and the Law of the Sea are not adequate to cope with the new political realities in the Arctic; these might call for the creation of new forms of international regulation. However, the original purpose of the Arctic Council — to represent native peoples and to protect the environment — must be honored to hinder further damage in the Arctic.
S. Gönen, “Political Warfare Looms over Arctic amid Climate Change,” Daily Sabah, August 28, 2019.
C. Kelly, “Why a Melting Arctic Could Sink the Global Economy,” Center for American Progress, March 19, 2014. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/reports/2014/03/19/85967/why-a-melting-arctic-could-sink-the-global-economy/
E. Roston and B. Migliozzi, “How a Melting Arctic Changes Everything, Part II: The Political Artic,” May 16, 2017. https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2017-arctic/the-political-arctic/
Economist, Science and Technology Edition, “Climate Change: A lot of Arctic infrastructure is threatened by rising temperatures”, January 15, 2022.
J. Winters, “Opportunity and Humility in a Melting Artic”, Harvard Political Review, April 5, 2018.
- Sude Çapoğlu, TurkishlIbrary.us