Potential for Conflict in a Melting Arctic
Guest post by John Malone
Given the threats we as a nation have faced since 9/11, it’s reasonable to think in terms of how climate change will affect societies that are already under stress – how countries could quickly degenerate from fragile to failed states, drawing U.S. forces into civil wars or humanitarian interventions, or providing fertile ground for terrorist recruiters. Water shortages, crop failures, and rising sea levels will trigger crises in some of the world’s poorest countries that could stretch the resources of a military already fighting two wars abroad.
But as we prepare for such a world, we can’t ignore how a warming planet will shift national interests among the established great powers. Sea ice in the Arctic is retreating, opening up access to resources and trade routes that to date have been beyond reach. A frozen Great Game is shaping up in the Arctic, between the U.S., Russia, Canada, and the Nordic countries, that will see – in the best case – U.S. military resources diverted to the far North, and in the worst case potentially leading to conflict with Moscow.
The U.S. Geological Survey now estimates that the offshore Arctic contains over 400 billion barrels of oil and natural gas equivalent, and that estimate assumes existing oil and gas technologies – advances in exploration and drilling techniques could bump up that number significantly. Most of the Arctic’s unexplored areas lie offshore Russia – and Putin’s Kremlin has made it abundantly clear that it considers the Arctic its backyard, all the way to the North Pole itself. Norway and Russia are already arguing over borders in the area. The gold rush for hydrocarbons in the Arctic is moving what has been a geopolitical backwater to the front burner for Western navies, and certainly will lead to (hopefully only diplomatic) conflict between the littoral states.
The other issue at hand is transport: an Arctic sea route between the North Atlantic and the Far East that could cut substantial time – and therefore cost- off trade between Europe and Asia. Retreating sea ice is opening new lanes, which means more tonnage through the Arctic, which in turn means more need for military patrols and monitoring. Ottawa is apparently already budgeting for drone aircraft earmarked for Arctic surveillance.
Russia has made it clear it is going to aggressively pursue its interests in the Arctic, and Canada has been saying for a couple years now that it plans to take a tough stand on its Arctic sovereignty. Thankfully, the new dynamic in the Arctic has not gone unnoticed in the Pentagon. In May, the Navy formed a task force to address climate change-related planning, and the potential for engagement in the Arctic is apparently at the top of the to-do list. Climate change is not only going to call upon more U.S. infantry and special forces abroad, it’s going to mean more work for big-ticket items – naval task forces, icebreakers, new satellite systems – and the cost of their deployment and maintenance… not to mention a greater chance of bumping up against one of our oldest adversaries.
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