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Posted by on Sep 30, 2009 in International, Science & Technology | 17 comments

Potential for Conflict in a Melting Arctic

Guest post by John Malone

John Malone, a VP/Senior Analyst with John S. Herold, an energy investment research firm in Connecticut, is a Truman National Security Project fellow.


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.

(Cross-posted from Operation FREE.)

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  • DLS

    Assuming more ice loss (itself no excuse for idiotic hype), there’s no surprise about the Northern Sea Route[s] (useful for nuclear transport, and will it attract Greenpeace pirates like flies?), nor about this, which needn’t be rushed:

  • Wannabe_Centrist

    Lol. Hydrocarbons are mostly to blame for global warming and now that it has helped create this situation, the onus falls on…fighting for hydrocarbon resources. I don’t agree that the Pentagon should claim that global warming is a national security threat and then use a consequence of global warming to spear-head future hydrocarbon extractions as a national security threat from Russia. Great article, I’ve been for weening off the hydrocarbon teet for sometime, this only helps confirm my beliefs. Good thing America is slowly greening up, hopefully more people will realize the hypocrisy here, light threats from Russia be danged. Let them waste time and money trying to extract a dying resource while (hopefully) the rest of the world moves on ahead.

  • shannonlee

    Considering the massive global population loss that we will see from rising sea levels…maybe we don’t need to fight over energy? Fewer people = less energy demand.

    • Kastanj

      The problem is that it won’t be people like us who die – it will be people who don’t deserve it who go first. Essentially, they were used as slaves before and will now be our canaries instead. Good going, humanity.

    • mikkel

      The arctic will be ice free in the summer hundreds of years before sea levels rise all that much. The more immediate threat to population levels actually is energy.

      • Father_Time

        What kind of …statement is that?

  • Father_Time

    These are legitimate predictions and are being discussed by the most legitimate government and academic bodies on earth. Finite resources and sovereign nation’s duty to self interest leave no doubt there will be tensions. It’s a shame that the Conservatives, mainly Republicans, didn’t listen to Democrats, mainly moderates, twenty years ago when Democrats began advocating ecological change. But no, Republicans prefer short term profits at the expense of our nation.

  • DLS

    Have no fear — idiotic hype and Lysenkoism associated with the environmentalist movement are being sated. Barbara Boxer and John Kerry are advancing, not retarding, idiotic House climate legislation or its close equivalent, eventually, in the Senate. And Obama took time off from his campaigning and lobbying (for Chicago 2016) in (of note) Copenhagen to say that he is “committed” to getting the climate legislation nonsense passed. (That’s despite accounting for what his vow of “committed” may really mean.)

    • Father_Time

      Speaking of idiotic hype, what possible need do you have for energy anyway? God is going to come and save you at the last moment.


  • DLS

    Father Time, rather than struggle and thrash (I’ll keep this magnanimously kind), I’d suggest you learn about the issues, instead.

    a) “ice-free Arctic” means loss of oceanic ice, not Greeland (nor the Antarctic ice, ahem), mainly in summer — there is expected to be seasonal winter ice close to shore (as off Labrador today), if not farther offshore in the wintertime as well (not necessarily ice-free year-round, in other words). There is no “runaway greenhouse effect” catastrophe, hugely rising sea levels drowing civilization, mass disruption of society all over the world, or any of the other stupid hype.

    b) Boxer and Kerry have unveiled their Senate Lyenkoism — they won’t be outdone by the House dolts.

    Who knows if the timing of this is associated not only with Obama being in Copenhagen (on his shabby lobbyist-campaign junket on behalf of Chicago as an Olympic site) but with aiding lib Dems in the Senate (as well as in the House) with other issues, such as health care “reform” and the public option.

    • Father_Time

      What utter BS.

      Your reference is political. Your comments are political. You offer no objective fact. You commit the lie of omission at the expense of the very survival of the planet.

      Try REAL references such as:


      They all disagree with YOU.

      • Correction: Democrats have warned of this for over 30 years.

        “In little more than two decades we’ve gone from a position of energy independence to one in which almost half the oil we use comes from foreign countries, at prices that are going through the roof. Our excessive dependence on OPEC has already taken a tremendous tool on our economy and our people. This is the direct cause of the long lines which have made millions of you spend aggravating hours waiting for gasoline. It’s a cause of the increased inflation and unemployment that we now face. This intolerable dependence on foreign oil threatens our economic independence and the very security of our Nation.

        The energy crisis is real. It is worldwide. It is a clear and present danger to our Nation. These are facts and we simply must face them. ”
        Jimmy Carter, 1979

  • DLS

    Last and far from least, there’s EPA, another part of ObamaCo — not waiting for Congress to pass new laws before it acts on its own. Again, to what extent this is related to Copenhagen or to the lib Dems in the House and in Congress is an open, though relevent, question. They’ve started moving.,0,5195916.story

    “Do as we want, Congress, or we’ll act on our own…”

  • GeorgeBruce

    Excuse me for interrupting this mantra with a small, tiny little fact. What do you say about an elaborate argument that is primarily based upon a fundamental premise that is false? The Arctic ice is not shrinking. It is now in a growing trend. At some point in the future it will again be in a shrinking trend, after which a growing trend, etc.

    Also, the mass of ice in the Antarctic is the greatest on record.

    Finally, the “hockey stick” has finally been smashed beyond all repair. Read several articles here for a good summary:

    There are several articles. Scroll down.

    It hard to overstate the importance of the tree ring data scandal. There is little empirical evidence to back up claims that the climate is warming. Most arguments are based on computer models. Now that the raw data behind the infamous “hockey stick” is available, accusations of scientific fraud are not unfounded. For a good account of the history of this mess, read this:

    How important is this? Think ACORN videos.

    • HemmD


      You better be careful using logical analysis to refute current mythology. There are a couple here who will not take kindly to such under-handed tactics.

  • DLS

    “What utter BS.”

    Mirror talk, and commonplace these days.

    Be glad the suffrage isn’t qualified.

  • DLS

    “Democrats have warned of this for over 30 years.”

    Global warming, “climate change,” or whatever the next term for the same thing will be? No.

    Future energy shortages or competition for more-scarce resoures later? Yes, but — one must separate the facts from the hype and hysteria there, too. “Club of Rome” garbage was no better than “population explosion” garbage, or nearly all the “climate change” garbage of several years running. Same “Malthusian” anti-Western (and especially anti-USA) garbage, same “solutions” that include politicizing energy and the economy and society, loads of government interventionism, and planning as well as command and control government direction of everything. [sigh]

    There is no “crisis” [sic] and no excuse for PC and related idiocy. Sadly, Democrats are pushing it.

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