Is the glass half empty or half full? If you listen to climate activists, melting polar ice can only mean trouble, with competition for previously inaccessible resources setting the stage for great power conflict, a return to Cold War tensions, or worse.
Yet, as noted in a previous post, activists also warn that climate change will promote conflict by making resources scarcer. The Arctic contains 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of its undiscovered natural gas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. If Arctic ice melt leads to greater global energy supply, opens the fabled Northwest Passage, and facilitates trade, it could also foster cooperation and peace.
Here’s my two cents. Whatever happens to the polar ice cap in coming decades, nations are more likely to cooperate and resolve disputes peacefully if the United States possesses the capability and will to deter aggression. As factors determining national security risk, potential adversaries’ longstanding geopolitical ambitions and evolving capabilities are likely to matter more than climate change.
The Obama administration, it seems, is worried about Russia’s expanding presence in the Arctic, but wants the public to think we have a climate change problem rather than a Russia problem. Staring down a melting glacier is just so much easier than standing up to Vladimir Putin.
Today is the second day of the President’s three-day trip to Alaska “to shine a spotlight on the impacts of climate change.” As reported in the New York Times by Julie Herschfeld Davis, Obama will “propose speeding the acquisition and building of new Coast Guard icebreakers that can operate year-round in the nation’s polar regions, part of an effort to close the gap between the United States and other nations, especially Russia, in a global competition to gain a foothold in the rapidly changing Arctic.”
Russia is far ahead of us in ice breakers, and the “gap” is growing:
The aging Coast Guard fleet is not keeping pace with the challenge, the administration acknowledged, noting that the service has the equivalent of just two “fully functional” heavy icebreakers at its disposal, down from seven during World War II. Russia, by contrast, has 41 of the vessels, with plans for 11 more. China unveiled a refurbished icebreaker in 2012 and is building another.
Russia is also building military bases. Davis quotes Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, who traveled with the President on Air Force One yesterday:
“It’s the biggest buildup of the Russian military since the Cold War,” Mr. Walker said, noting Alaska’s proximity to Russia. “They’re reopening 10 bases and building four more, and they’re all in the Arctic, so here we are in the middle of the pond, feeling a little bit uncomfortable.”
Constructing new ice breakers and “evaluating the feasibility” of extending the port in Nome, Alaska, don’t seem like much of a strategy to counter the Russian military buildup, and the White House is not describing them as such.
The map below, from an Aug. 31 NYT article by Stephen Lee Meyers, shows the Arctic areas with a >50% chance of large undiscovered oil and gas reserves, each country’s exclusive economic zone, international waters (“high seas”), and Arctic waters under Russian control.
Portions of the region are still in dispute, Wikipedia reports:
Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States all regard parts of the Arctic seas as national waters (territorial waters out to 12 nautical miles (22 km)) or internal waters. There also are disputes regarding what passages constitute international seaways and rights to passage along them.
Russia, for example, views the Northern Sea Route (NSR) stretching from the Bering Sea to the North Atlantic “as internal waters, and thus subject to transit fees, while the international community views the NSR as an international passage,” note Heather Conley and Carolyn Rohloff of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Meyers of the NYT paints a vivid picture of “Russia’s scramble for the Arctic.” [click to continue…]