Environmental security in the Arctic: the ‘Great Game’ vs. sustainable security

Arctic InsecurityGenerally, the Arctic has elicited only minor attention outside the countries whose borders or territories fall within the loosely-defined region. But that is changing rapidly. As Kuupik Kleist, the former Prime Minister of Greenland, put it,

 “The Arctic used to be the last frontier. Now it seems we are at the center of the world.”

While rapidly deteriorating environmental security in the region poses a grave threat to many regions of the world, the focus on militarized control of the area masks the very real need to mitigate further damage to the climate and increase our adaptive capacities to the inevitable climatic changes that will come in the 21st century.

Realpolitik or Environmental Security?

Indeed, much has been made lately about the ongoing and profound changes that are reshaping the Arctic region. There is no shortage of reports that detail the ways that climate change is forcing the region’s physical, social, and political environments into flux. Arctic sea ice is melting at an increasingly rapid rate, with the very real possibility that sometime between 2020-2050, the Arctic will soon experience its first (and undoubtedly not its last) sea ice-free summer. The effects of warming temperatures are likely to be dramatic: it will degrade habitats for vulnerable species, including polar bears and seals, and will accelerate and compound the effects of climate change, like volatile weather patterns and rising sea levels. A recent article in the journal Nature concluded that the long-term economic costs from a warming Arctic could reach $60 trillion, almost equal to the entire economic value of the world economy in 2012.

But in the face of these worrying trends, discussion has instead focused on the economic opportunities offered by the ‘opening up’ of the Arctic, including the creation of new shipping routes and increasing the accessibility of fossil fuel reserves. The area north of the Arctic Circle is said to contain about 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil. The Governance of newly opened shipping lanes like the Northwest Passage will remain a contentious political question. While the region has thus far suffered from general neglect and inattention, it is unrealistic to expect that to continue in the future.

Indeed, it is already becoming clear that the Arctic is the site of ongoing militarization. Recent security maneuvers have increased state control over the farthest reaches of state territory. In 2007, Russia planted its flag underneath the North Pole and resumed strategic bomber patrols over the area, echoing  its Cold War past. Canada’s official Arctic Foreign Policy proclaims “the first and most important pillar towards recognizing the potential of Canada’s Arctic is the exercise of our sovereignty over the far north.” Border disputes in the Arctic have led to strained relations for decades between Canada and Denmark as well as between Russia and Norway. Both cases have been peacefully resolved in the last few years. Yet, sovereignty and security have both been used to justify the proliferation of military ice-breakers, patrol ships, the creation of new deep water ports, and the deployment of military personnel including the Northern Rangers in Canada and the Danish Arctic command (which are both relatively small in terms of active personnel). Joint military operations conducted by Arctic countries (excluding Russia) such as Operation Cold Response and Operation Nanook have also contributed to the militarization of the Arctic.

It is worthwhile then to examine how sustainable forms of security are useful in the Artic context. What is needed principally is an increased awareness of the integrated connections between the natural environment and security. Large-scale changes to the natural environment are security threats.  Whether through an increase in extreme weather events causing enormous health and economic costs; rising sea levels leading to coastal flooding and climate-induced migration; or desertification, which devastates crop production, the effects of environmental change are severe. The task then in the Arctic is to combat the tendency to view environmental degradation as an opportunity for national gain, which will do little to counter-act the severe global effects. Such conventional, strategic responses inevitably lead only to further suspicion, distrust, and discord. The Arctic is one of the clearest manifestations of this tendency.

The Arctic will be without question a region of high strategic importance in the 21st century. Unfortunately, countries are likely to view the Arctic with an eye to using the region to bolster domestic support for increased militarization, surveillance, and sovereign control over vast, distant, territorial ‘frontiers’.  All told, Arctic security remains wedded to traditional, state-centric military threats despite the fact that the threat of outright conflict is as remote as the farthest reaches of the Arctic region itself. These approaches may be predictable, but they will contribute little to alleviating the complex, interrelated, and underlying drivers of insecurity in the Arctic region.

Demilitarizing the Arctic

So is the goal then to “demilitarize” the Arctic? Would the diverse sets of international issues arising from changes in the Arctic be better positioned in political terms, away from the exceptional demands that military thinking requires? Perhaps strengthening political institutions like the Arctic Council can alleviate the Arctic “rush” and ensure a lawful forum for state and indigenous negotiations in the Arctic. Formed in 1996, the Arctic Council has been the primary diplomatic forum used to facilitate cooperation, discussion, and negotiation. It was formed by eight Arctic countries (Canada, Denmark [Greenland], Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States) and includes six Arctic indigenous organizations and other Arctic inhabitants. Recently, the Council accepted six new non-Arctic states as non-voting Observer states, joining six others already granted observer status. The new inclusions, China, India, Italy, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, may appear at first glance to be curious admissions. Certainly they represent important economic and military powers but most exist far from region itself. However, after initial reticence from members like Canada, the Council accepted their inclusion on the basis of strengthening the Council’s legitimacy by undercutting any emerging alternative organizations, like the Arctic Circle Forum from usurping its authority.

We should celebrate the decision by Council members to include new observer states: it allows these states to increase their awareness of Arctic issues and vulnerabilities, it opens up new avenues for cooperation and confidence-building measures, and it rightly spreads the responsibility for protecting the Arctic across the world. But while the Arctic Council remains an enduring and hopeful sign for managing political relations, the Council alone should not be expected to transform the underlying logic that continuously renders environmental security in strategic terms, obscuring the practices which have led to Arctic insecurity in the 21st century.

The driver of Arctic insecurity is not simply the continued militarization or the politicization of the region by its encircling states. The reality is much more complex and multifaceted. In effect, by continuously focusing on security in these strategic terms, we can’t see the forest for the trees. The Arctic “great game is not simply a metaphor we might use to romanticize geopolitical maneuvers; it is an expression of the profound material environmental shifts that are occurring rapidly and are a result of anthropogenic drivers related to modern carbon-based societies. The continual free-fall in terms of Arctic ice levels and the fact that the region has been warming twice as fast as lower latitudes is likely to have far more important, long-lastingand damaging global effects than a hypothetical, always-over-the-horizon conflict between states competing to protect their localized interests. That is a popular story that obscures the much more difficult and insidious problems related to diagnosing and combatting climate change.

The fact that most states view the opening up of new Arctic sea lanes as a means to exploit vast and newly accessible energy sources reflects long-dominant understandings of both security and the environment. If our understanding of both Arctic security and the Arctic environment continues to be reduced to the international scramble for untapped resources and for newly opened “shipping lanes” (or melted sea ice, if you will), it is unlikely that the hugely alarming and damaging environmental effects of climate change will ever be truly overcome.

It is essential then that environmental security in the Arctic is recast away from traditional and dominant security practices of resource development, national sovereignty promotion, and increased surveillance. While these practices will remain in the future, we still should encourage a much more profound rethink that places greater value not simply on increasing cooperative intergrovernmental forums (though these are important), but on greater collaboration with indigenous populations, on studying the global environmental interconnections between the Arctic and other regions, and on aggressively combatting climate change. Adaptation to the inevitable changes occurring in the region will of course require coordination and strategic planning, and the potential for conflict will be ever-present. But an overreliance on familiar narratives of climate change-induced conflict obscures the much more complex drivers of Arctic insecurity, namely our destructive relationship with the environment and its connection to conventional, strategic security logic.

Cameron Harrington is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at King’s University College and Brescia University College, at Western University (Canada), where he teaches in the areas of environmental politics and international relations. His Ph.D thesis, (pending completion September 2013) builds a framework to combat water insecurity in the 21st century by focusing on the ethics of security.

Cameron tweets via @camharrington and can be reached at cdharrin@uwo.ca 

Image source: lafrancevi (HMCS CORNER BROOK on arctic patrol during Operation Nanook)