The intersection of drastic climate change and the increasing securitisation of the Arctic is an issue policymakers and scientists cannot afford to ignore. With rising tensions between Russia and the West and prolonged disputes between the various eight Arctic States, Arctic conflict is increasingly a possibility despite the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—the broad legal framework governing our oceans, including the Arctic, the work of the Arctic Council—and a general history of cooperation in the region. An increased likelihood of conflict is a direct result of increased securitisation of the rapidly changing, warming region that has historically remained excluded from global conflicts. Resolving this securitisation will require concerted cooperation between many states with competing interests across several issues, including territorial claims, climate change, and natural resource extraction.
Much of the geopolitical tension across the Arctic plays out in the maritime domain and is exacerbated by climate change. Because the region is easier to access due to melting sea ice and technological developments, arctic states are deploying more naval vessels for exploration, scientific studies, and defence posturing. Melting sea ice and increased accessibility can rekindle dormant territorial claims, or spark new ones, as new islands are uncovered and borders shift.
Future maritime skirmishes are likely to be limited to security incidents over local territorial claims, which could be initiated by climate change and technological advancements, which may lead to larger conflicts in the region. Despite the currently peaceful and passive nature of the contested territorial claims in the region, the combination of increased securitisation interwoven and climate change might collapse this fragile Arctic peace.
The Changing Arctic
The Arctic has been disproportionately affected by climate change and the region continues to warm over twice as fast as the rest of the world. From a maritime perspective, the most influential changes lie in the rapid decline of sea ice thickness, area covered, and age over the last few decades–determining factors. Recent studies suggest that there is a 60% probability that the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free by the 2030s, which are only reinforced after disappointment in the lacklustre commitments and outcomes at the UN COP26 climate conference in Glasgow. Less sea ice and more open water not only impacts the Arctic’s important function in regulating global climate patterns but also redefines the boundaries of geopolitics: especially transportation.
It is now easier than ever to access the Arctic shipping routes like the Northwest Passage through Canada and the Northern Sea Route, sometimes called the Northeast Passage, along the Russian coast, leading to an increased economic interest in the region. The effects of anthropogenic global warming and the ramifications of an ice-free summer in the Arctic are evident: In 2017, a Russian tanker carrying liquified natural gas from Norway to Korea traversed the Northern Sea Route through the Arctic without an ice breaker escort for the first time ever. As shipping companies increasingly look to the Arctic instead of traditional maritime routes, the increase of marine traffic may increase both tensions between Arctic states due to maritime border disputes and the propensity for maritime incidents between vessels.
The geophysical transformation of the Arctic represents an opportunity for a departure from the traditional state-centric view of international security. As the ice melts, the map of the Arctic is literally redrawn. With access to new natural resources caches and shipping routes, Arctic states are prioritising their sovereignty and territorial integrity across the region, securitising the region.
Maritime Securitisation of the Arctic
The liminal nature of ice complicates the permanence that underpins modern concepts of sovereignty. Not only can borders within the Arctic change between decades due to the ice melt, but it also complicates subsea mapping, which is central to UNCLOS determinations. New islands are continuously found in the Arctic, previously covered by ice. This has given rise to cartopolitics to expand sovereignty claims. Some attempts have led to disputes between several Arctic states, such as the Danish claim over the Lomonosov Ridge, over which Russia and Canada also claim sovereignty. Nevertheless, despite the non-ratification of the treaty by the U.S., UNCLOS has provided the Arctic states with a successful framework from which to peacefully resolve disputes. Besides UNCLOS, the remaining portion of Arctic governance is routed primarily through bilateral agreements and the Arctic Council. However, the council focuses primarily on developmental and environmental issues. It has also been criticized due to its “weak institutional structure, soft law status and ad hoc funding system.” Fundamentally, the Arctic lacks a comprehensive legal regime analogous to that of the Antarctic Treaty.
Before melting ice began changing the geography of the Arctic, there were already tensions between many nations present in the region. Canada and the U.S. have prolonged disputes over both the status of the Northwest Passage and the Beaufort Sea. Canada, Denmark, and Russia have clashing continental shelf claims over the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain chain intersection in the Arctic basin. These prolonged disputes are reemerging as heightened security issues due to the rapidly changing Arctic.
Despite the cold nature of Arctic competition, its warming is exacerbating tensions, which could eventually lead to open conflict over conflicting territorial claims. The increased uncertainty has led to the securitisation of both climate change and the region. U.S. President Biden has stated that “climate considerations shall be an essential element of United States foreign policy and national security.” His administration also recently appointed a slew of regional experts to “advance U.S. national security and economic security interests in the Arctic to keep the region secure and stable.” Despite its status as a non-Arctic state, China’s Arctic Policy directly links maritime navigational security and climate change together as key security concerns in Arctic affairs. Russia has also expanded its military footprint in the region to protect its northern reaches, despite general (public-facing) indifference from its leaders to the dangers of climate change.
Increased military presence in the region is following the rhetorical securitization, led by the maritime assets of Arctic and non-Arctic states alike: The U.S. Coast Guard is taking steps to address key challenges in the region, and expanding its fleet of icebreakers. Russia has upgraded the administrative status of its Northern Fleet for the second time in less than a decade. China is building a new heavy icebreaker and lift vessel for the Arctic, and the Canadian Coast Guard and British Royal Navy have signed a new agreement with Arctic cooperation. The increased number of naval vessels, in an area twelve times smaller than the Pacific Ocean, with at least as many competing interests, could easily lead to maritime incidents between naval forces.
Climate change-induced transformation of the Arctic has increasingly led to its securitisation by numerous Arctic and non-Arctic states. The result is the increased presence of maritime assets in the region, which raises the propensity for Arctic conflict, and require concerted cooperation between states to manage. The rising tensions in the Arctic highlight the increasingly prominent intersection of climate change and geopolitics. While there is a need for global cooperation and continued information sharing between states, their militaries, and international organisations to reduce the likelihood of conflict in the region, the extensive problem of climate change and its contributory role in conflict remains unsolved. Comprehensive national security strategy should not only prepare for a ‘world on fire’, but also proactively work to reduce anthropogenic climate contributions to avoid conflict in the Arctic and beyond.