“The High North has been a bright spot for multilateralism. Action can keep it that way.-
Global warming has increased human activity at the top of the world, and fueled interest from non-polar China. How it’s overseen must reflect that.
May 22, 2021, 12:00 AM EDT
is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, , called for the Arctic to be a “zone of peace” — and it has been. Yet warmer temperatures are heralding ice-free summers, opening up all sorts of economic opportunities from potential oil and gas riches to new . Military might is being cranked up, too. Decades of harmonious exceptionalism may be coming to an end.
It is still possible to shield the region from rising tensions elsewhere. That will require rethinking the role of states without polar territory, China among them, and creating an informal venue for security discussions that includes sanctions-hit Russia. The eight Arctic states, including the U.S., Canada and Russia, must also take real action to tackle the region’s greatest threat: climate change. A after this week’s Arctic Council meeting made multiple mentions of global warming, but tough national targets need to match that talk.
It won’t be an easy balance to strike. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov against encroachment ahead of the Council meeting, which included government ministers from the region. “This is our land and our waters,” he said, before Moscow officially took the two-year rotating leadership of the Council. Framing the discussion as raw competition helps no one.
Fortunately, there’s a track record of substantive cooperation. A “race for resources” narrative underplays the real cost of extracting oil in the Arctic, despite oft-cited estimates of . New shipping routes such as the Northern Sea Route along the Russian Arctic coast are swifter and matter greatly for fossil fuels. But practical difficulties like pricier fuel bills, the need for stronger hulls and crews trained to deal with unpredictable sea ice mean these routes aren’t about to displace other .
Over the Top
Melting ice may lead to the opening of a third Arctic shipping lane linking the Atlantic and Pacific via the North Pole.
Nevertheless, the Arctic is changing fast. Temperatures have warmed at three times the global average over the past 50 years, according to the . Shrinking sea ice will probably make matters worse as more heat is absorbed, rather than reflected back. Melting permafrost has already contributed to one of Russia’s worst fuel spills. are a major concern.
The surge in human activity increases the risk for misunderstandings and accidents. There are more soldiers and military hardware as Russia , resuming operations at Soviet-era bases. The U.S. reestablished the Navy’s , responsible for the northern Atlantic Ocean, and is adding icebreaker capacity. In February, said it would invest in drones and radar for Arctic surveillance.
The Big Melt
Arctic sea ice helps moderate the global climate, and it's shrinking fast
Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center/NASA
Average monthly Arctic sea ice extent each September, the month when it reaches its minimum. Derived from satellite observations.
It’s a very different place than it was in 1996, when the Council, the closest thing to a regional governing body, was set up.
So what needs to be done? First, recognize the change. No one denies the rights of Arctic states and we won’t see a wholesale revamp of the consensus-run structure. But the Arctic doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Beijing’s on its Arctic policy has done it few favors, but Mike Pompeo, former U.S. Secretary of State, was wrong to say that China, and by extension other outsiders, were entitled to “exactly nothing.”
A proliferation of issue-specific arrangements show the need for a broader approach, albeit one with the Council at its core. It’s significant that Lavrov the need to “evaluate” and “improve” the observer nation set-up that allows some countries from outside the region to take part, even if it’s less clear what he has in mind. A needs this.
Russia wasn’t keen to allow China observer status in 2013, but Beijing is a key investor in Russian Arctic ventures such as the Yamal LNG project. As Elana Wilson Rowe at the says, it’s unclear how Moscow can keep pursuing an independent policy in the region and keep Beijing at arm’s length as China becomes more integral to the Arctic’s development.
Where security is concerned, something has to be done to foster dialogue and ensure more frequent armed forces’ maneuvers don’t lead to confrontation. Military affairs are explicitly outside the Council’s mandate. Yet sideline discussions bridging Western and Russian interests stopped after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and activity has hardly cooled since. Informal meetings or expert discussions are overdue — in a set-up that explicitly doesn’t exonerate Russia’s actions elsewhere, as Mathieu Boulegue of Chatham House points out. A is also essential.
Finally, for Arctic nations to maintain credibility as the primary custodians of the High North, they need to show they’re serious about global warming — even if they are not alone in causing it. Under the Trump administration, Washington did significant damage by blocking a final statement over words suggesting climate change was a serious threat. This year’s is better, but focuses on adaptation.
Russia, with the greatest economic stake, faces a delicate balancing act as it takes the Council’s helm. Moscow appears set to deal with contradictions between its and by breaking down the problem — say, by studying permafrost damage and methane release separately, while avoiding any overarching commitments.
The High North has been a bright spot for multilateralism. Action can keep it that way.