Climate Change: A Driver of Emerging Geopolitics in the Arctic

Image source: Getty

Geography very well reflects upon the existential conformity of States and the various attributes in accordance with the global governing structure. The Arctic Ocean, even by default a massive water body, until late was seen as a geographical barrier and irreversible. States and interested parties had restrictions on expanding and exercising their interests in the region due to the geographical nature of it. Theoreticians like Nicholas Spykman gave indirect credits to the inaccessibility of the Arctic in defining the core concept of the Heartland. Permafrost is any ground that remains completely frozen for at least two years at a stretch.

But with the changing climate and environmental impacts of global warming, NASA’s climate study estimates that summer ice coverage of the Arctic is declining at a rate of 12.85 percent per annum and estimates project that Arctic summers by 2040 will be left completely devoid of ice. Global initiatives have begun at various levels to keep the climate change rate in check and have set targets to keep the rise in temperatures below 2 degrees celsius. While States are actively engaging in fulfilling this goal – it remains a question of perspective as to if this climate change is actually so undesirable after all?

Image source: NASA

The permafrost thawing has well accelerated the rate of temperature rise and global climate change. Ice sheets are responsible for reflecting back the sunlight and keeping the environment cool. But with fast declining ice coverage – climate change has been 20-40% worse than it would have been. Being home to 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil reserves (5.9% world’s known reserves, 1669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves (24.3% world’s known gas reserves) and massive reserves of precious and rare Earth elements like nickel, gypsum, gold, fossil ivory, scandium, etc.

These are not only useful in technological advancements but also fetch a heap of money. The rate of scandium back in 2013 was $15 million a ton which is only set to increase as the years go by. About half of the total value of Norwegian goods exports came from the export of oil and gas. Russia exports around 30% and 40% of the EU’s oil and gas imports respectively. The money inflow and the opportunities provided by the melting of the Arctic are thus, quite significant and crucial. These reserves, as a result, are also major geopolitical drivers. The United States recently attempted to buy Greenland and China released in 2018 its own Arctic Policy whereby it expressed interest in the near-Arctic States. 

There are large scientific exploration projects like the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) being undertaken in the Arctic to study the critical aspects of the Arctic ice, air, climate, organisms, etc. in the Arctic. These studies are also indicative of the human adaptability in the extreme regions of the frozen sea. These studies, in turn, are useful for the military of the States who have been long training their troops and increasing their functionality in the harsh climatic conditions of the region.

The inaccessibility of the region has provided the provided countries large swathes of the open geographical area to expand their military operations and thus, establish their dominance. The Arctic was seen as a major area holding strategic importance in the years of the Cold War. During the cold war, the Northern Fleet of the Soviet Union’s placing of ballistic missiles submarines and an open-air space giving it greater proximity to the homeland of the United States as its NATO allies bordering the Atlantic.

The hardships that the Arctic provides in terms of travel and the further limitations have driven innovations applicable and useful for both, the scientific community and the military domain. Russia’s Artika class nuclear-powered icebreaker ships and the floating power plants are posed to provide Russia with an edge in establishing its authority and taking advantage of all that the Arctic has to offer. While the Arctic is an area of interest for the rest of the four states of the USA, Canada, Greenland, and Norway, increasing troop presence in the Arctic along with military bases and innovation in arms and equipment to survive the winters may be witnessed in the future.  

Surviving the winters has been the de facto point of concern in the Arctic but while States are preparing to take advantage of the ice-free summers, it becomes necessary to take in perspective the challenges that the thawing permafrost poses. Unstable land and marshy roads are equally making the infrastructure projects in the Arctic risky and vulnerable. In Norilsk on the 15th of June, 2020, around 20,000 tons of fuel from a power plant spilt into the Arctic after it’s supporting structures lost the support of the now less sturdy ground in the region.

In the same month, a 2000 foot wide landslide occurred in the coastal region of Norway which swept multiple buildings into the Arctic causing damages to property and finances of the people residing there. While one of the common reasons cited is the natural stability of the slope, the other reasons such as disturbance in rainfall pattern, snow melting and permeation of water into the soil are a result of the Arctic climate change which is believed to cause increasing damage and instability in the years to come. Thus, while the opportunities of the Arctic melting seem huge, the challenges posed are equally magnanimous in nature. 

Trade and commerce are believed to rise in the Arctic States and further, shipping expenses and time from the eastern coasts of Russia and China to Europe are expected to decrease with the possible usage of Northern Sea Route (NSR). The NSR is believed to cut down 40% of transit time between Asia and Europe. These routes will enable China, Russia’s Vladivostok, Russia’s northern regions, Greenland, Norway, and other regions to be well connected to markets that were otherwise too tedious to connect to. 

Image source: The Economist

The opportunities again come with speculation of possible points of contentions over the chokepoint of the Bering Strait and overlapping claims of territory over the Arctic. Russia’s floating nuclear power plant is expected to support mining activities in regions whose eastern fronts are a few kilometres from Alaska. Troops deployment will follow the securitization of geography and economic activities as Alfred Thayer Mahan postulated it to be. Will proximity in such activities and operations give warmth to the confrontations in the future remains to be seen. Although, on the western front of the Arctic, there will be a result of this evolving landscape on the relations Russia shares with its European counterparts. As discussed above, a majority of the European Union’s oil and gas imports are sourced from Russia.

As the energy demand keeps rising, according to the EU Energy Outlook 2050, the share of variable Renewable Energy Sources in Europe is expected to rise to about 50% and thus, the demand for natural gas will be on the rise. Until now, there were concerns in certain western nations over the imports of Russian gas as the pipelines traversed through Ukraine. With the newly emerging gas fields in the Arctic and the creation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline bypassing Ukraine, it is further going to be convenient and cheaper for both the parties to deal with these supplies as there will be a reduction of transit costs and geopolitical considerations.

As per EU-Russia Energy Dialogue, the EU as well as Russia (2013), both the parties are looking forward to moving away from the buyer-supplier relationship and integrate more for technological cooperation and energy security. With an increasing amount of oil and gas extraction and developing possibilities due to permafrost thawing in the Arctic, the cooperation and the relation is set to advance transcending ideological differences.

Image source: Yale Environment 360

Like the European Union, the Arctic States – Norway, Greenland, and Canada have vowed to reach climate neutrality and tackle the issue of climate change. The climate change debate has brought forward a paradoxical situation. While States are putting efforts to fight against global warming and have established the fact that the shrinking Arctic ice coverage can bring a domino effect leading to an acceleration of global temperature rise – States have also been vouching for increased usage of natural gas whose major source will be the Arctic.

The use of natural gas is to further increase the adoption of cleaner energy sources to achieve climate neutrality and battle climate change. The question initially raised, thus evolves to – which type of and on which front is the States willing to fight their climate change battle. Will States choose to limit the depletion of ice coverage and the Arctic natural ecosystem or will there be exploitation of the natural resources in the Arctic to achieve State declared climate change goals – remains to be seen.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Kurnica Bhattacharjee

Kurnica Bhattacharjee is a postgraduate research scholar in Geopolitics and International Relations at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education. She is currently an intern with the Political Risk and Intelligence Services Management (PRISM) division, COVINTS.

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