The Arctic: A Region of Future Conflict or Cooperation

Posted on July 20, 2016 by William M. Eichbaum

Among the most dramatic impacts of global warming is Arctic change.  On the one hand, we are witnessing the unprecedented melting of ice and snow, loss of habitat for globally unique species, and threats to centuries-old patterns of human livelihood.   On the other, as the Arctic becomes more accessible, there is a rush to satisfy the global thirst for natural resources creating yet greater environmental jeopardy for the region.

The popular press has raised the specter of possible conflict among nations as this newest wave of resource exploitation accelerates.  These concerns have been exacerbated as tensions have increased between NATO countries and Russia over Ukraine, among other geo-political issues.  In fact, there are several examples of Arctic countries increasing military presence in their Arctic territories.

However, from my vantage point, the Arctic is unlikely to erupt into a new zone of conflict as nations pursue resource development.  That’s because, there have been few instances of dispute over actual territory, with the most significant ones involving only Canada, the United States, and Denmark.  While Russian claims regarding the Arctic Ocean seabed are much discussed in the media, other “Arctic nations” are making similar claims.  These claims are all subject to resolution pursuant to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.  (To some there is irony in the fact that United States’ failure to accede to this Convention means that the United States may be unable to perfect its Arctic seabed claims.

Despite increased accessibility, exploiting natural resources in the Arctic region will continue to be dangerous and difficult.   Governmental cooperation in governance of the Arctic region will be essential to provide the platform for Arctic economic activity to advance in an environmental, social, and economically sustainable manner

Since 1996, The Arctic Council, consisting of the eight Arctic countries, permanent participants representing indigenous people, and observers, has been the focal point for developing the science necessary to meet this challenge.  Under the leadership of the US Government, currently the Chair of the Council, a Task Force is considering stronger measures to assure that the recommendations of the Council are implemented.  In a recent paper published by The Polar Record I addressed issues key to strengthening Arctic governance, especially in the marine environment. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=10379682&fulltextType=RC&fileId=S0032247416000462 At this juncture, Arctic countries, including Russia, are positively exploring options for achieving such cooperation.

This summer a tourist vessel with over a thousand passengers is crossing the Canadian Arctic, through seas where a ship one-tenth that size recently ran aground, requiring evacuation of all passengers and crew.   While Shell aborted future hydrocarbon exploration in the Bering and Chukchi Seas following numerous accidents and missteps in the summer of 2012, robust development continues elsewhere in the Arctic.  And distant water fleets are moving ever northward in pursuit of fish.  Without strong mechanisms for cooperation on governance of the region by the Arctic countries, these and other activities pose meaningful environmental threats to the Arctic beyond the climate change narrative.    With strong cooperation, however, they can be made to be sustainable not just for the natural resources of the region but also for the people of the Arctic.