08 May 2019

In the Arctic, rising temperatures are producing hotter heads

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shocked the Arctic Council on Monday, with strong words for China, Russia and Canada – in a forum usually reserved for cooperation and relative goodwill. For the first time in its history, no joint declaration could be agreed. While the US position on climate change was central to the final disagreement, recent events show there are deeper roots to the geopolitical tension that is increasingly defining Arctic diplomacy.

Analysis by: Robert Magowan and Louise van Schaik


When the Arctic Council met this week for its biennial ministerial meeting in the northern Finnish city of Rovaniemi – the Official Hometown of Santa Claus – it did so overshadowed by a state of tension. NATO and Russia are bolstering military presences. Receding ice is creating new opportunities for transport and natural resource extraction, and even non-Arctic states – or ‘near-Arctic’ states, as China prefers – are shoring up bold and broad strategies for engagement.

In the background, a complicated legal dispute over who owns the Arctic, or rather its sea bottom, continues. Russia and Denmark (via Greenland) have submitted competing claims and Canada is expected to follow soon. A verdict by the Commission on the limits of Continental Shelves of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) is expected only in 5-10 years, and since the US is not a Party to UNCLOS, it may not be accepted by all Arctic coastal states.

Few, however, predicted the speech that Secretary Pompeo delivered on Monday evening. In it he called out "aggressive behaviour" by Russia and China, said that China's 'near-Arctic' claim entitled it to "exactly nothing", cast doubt upon its civilian research and military ambitions, referenced "illegitimate" territorial claims of Canada, and, more broadly, defined principles on international engagement with the Arctic in terms of free market access to the region's "opportunity and abundance". The following day, the US' objection to references to climate change are reported to have sunk the traditional joint ministerial declaration, which would have spelled out the council's priorities as incoming chair Iceland took up its two year term.

With both Secretary Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in attendance in Rovaniemi, recent events (not least in Venezuela) had been expected to test the long-held principle that the Arctic Council was shielded from strife elsewhere. Indeed, the source of political disagreement on climate change might be taken as additional evidence that Cristine Russell’s adage – “What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic” – works as well in the inverse: what happens outside the Arctic, doesn’t remain there either. 

But the advent of receding ice, and its geopolitical implications, are already well under way. While ever more access to the “last frontier” of untapped resources is emblematic of the impact of international failure on tackling climate change, the great irony is that fossil fuels and other resources maintain a defining role in the “new age of strategic engagement” that this very failure has helped create. The context of this week's Arctic Council fallout therefore was a notable uptick in military and diplomatic manoeuvring over recent years, as the US, Russia and others have sought to increase this geopolitical and commercial leverage.

Rising tension

Firstly looking east, Russia has increased restrictions on naval shipping on the Northern Sea Route, requiring 45 days’ notice of voyages, increased fees and a Russian maritime pilot on board, with threats of “elimination” for non-compliance. In doing so it exploits ‘special rights’ under Article 234 of the UNCLOS, a sea change from Putin’s claim in 2000 that to so would be unacceptable. As pointed out recently by Mikheil Saakashvili in Foreign Policy, Russian assertiveness is perhaps best understood in the context of a rationale that is likely to land well politically at home, with blame placed on the “more active naval operations … of various foreign countries”. So might the uptick in Russian military capabilities and activity in the High North, with reports of a mock bombing attack picked up by Norwegian Arctic radars.

Looking west, the US Navy Arctic Strategy is due for a much earlier-than-expected update in June, as a direct result of receding ice (“the damn thing melted”, explained Navy Secretary Richard Spencer). It is expected to target “great power competition”, but with a primary focus on China, as a result of its major Polar Silk Road intervention of January 2018. Through this and associated initiatives China has aligned strategically with Russia, not least in exploiting both the Northern Sea Route made increasingly traversable by receding ice and the natural resources that might be transported along it. China recently stepped in to help finance Russia’s liquid natural gas facilities in the Yamal Peninsula (in addition to projects in Greenland, Iceland and Norway), and, closer to home, it is forging its own path, building a nuclear-powered icebreaker and comprehensively institutionalising its scientific and commercial interests in the Arctic.

The US has already begun to respond to both China and Russia’s encroachments, for example by opening up financing options for foreign direct investment and strategic military programs. Key observers have called for the US to go further to show leadership in responding to changing climate geopolitics. However as Dr Elizabeth Buchanan has argued, it may be more prudent to expect that any review of the US strategy under President Trump will be reactionary in nature and light on long term interests. The Pompeo speech illustrates the US has indeed opted for an assertive approach.

In the middle of this lies the European Union, with its Arctic Ambassador playing down the immediate risk of conflict but also predicting the need for a new or revised EU Arctic policy in the near future. The first ‘integrated’ EU policy, launched in 2016, struggled to accommodate what is known as the ‘Arctic paradox’: the trade-off between exploiting the economic opportunities of an ice-free Arctic and preventing the destruction of a globally crucial ecosystem. Thus the current EU approach has been called ‘green by omission’, integrating environmental concerns only to the extent that its institutions can do so in largely uncontroversial spaces less occupied by its Arctic member states – existing emissions targets, for example, and scientific research funding.

Rising temperatures reinforced by black carbon

What may just set the Arctic apart from the plethora of other security threats emanating from the effects of climate change, is the combined ecological and diplomatic feedback loop that temperature rises could let loose if regional and international cooperation fails on the environment. A key issue illustrating this point, and one that was high on the agenda for Monday’s meeting, is that of black carbon.

Black carbon, more commonly known as soot, is a short-lived atmospheric pollutant, produced as a result of the burning of fossil fuels and biomass. It is especially dangerous in the Arctic as it darkens snow and ice and dampens their capacity to reflect heat. Emissions by Arctic Council members cause an estimated one third of Arctic warming, which is itself occurring at twice the rate of the global average. In 2017 the Arctic Council agreed to cut black carbon emissions by 25-33% below 2013 levels by 2025, but in March, outgoing chair Finland scalded both the US and Russia for failing to cooperate.

The Arctic Council has long been characterised as a cooperative arena; it recently made Henrik Urdal’s unofficial Nobel Peace Prize shortlist, and Finland’s Foreign Minister Timo Soini was at pains yesterday to celebrate progress, such as the first attendance of all eight foreign ministers in its history. However on crucial issues such as black carbon, diplomatic tensions driven by commercial interests seem to be an excuse for Arctic states not to act. It should be emphasised these interests are not limited to the US, China and Russia, with one assessment concluding they dominate the strategies of even traditionally cooperative Arctic states, including Finland itself. That these opportunities may only be extended under a competitive, interest-driven approach (along with the deterioration of Arctic biodiversity and prospects for its 4 million inhabitants) indicates the ‘Arctic paradox’ might be better termed the Arctic vicious circle.

This week’s meeting presented an opportunity to see if Arctic states and observers could overcome their divergences and cooperate to protect the environment of one of the most pristine regions at the world. But calls to reframe the Arctic as a site of global commons seem to be, as yet, unheard.