A Melting Arctic Could Spark a New Cold War

6 minute read
Watson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is the author of Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition.

In a land as unforgiving as the Arctic, cooperation is critical to survival. That simple principle, called Piliriqatigiingniq, is a pillar of an ancient social code that has guided Inuit through centuries of hardship, to sustain life and community in one of Earth’s most lethal environments.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S., Russia and six other circumpolar neighbors have quietly worked together in the Arctic Council, a sort of United Nations of the North, even when frictions created heated disputes farther south. Now, as ancient Arctic ice barriers melt to nothing, the rush to exploit oil, natural gas and other resources has quickened, threatening to destabilize the region.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised hopes Thursday that Arctic cooperation might continue to trump rising tensions elsewhere in the world while handing over the rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council to Finland. Despite an intense debate in the White House over whether to pull out of the 2015 Paris Agreement to fight climate change, Tillerson joined the Council’s seven other permanent members in signing a fresh commitment to the accord. But he cautioned that U.S. interests, not the views of other countries, will guide Washington’s decision on whether to remain in the climate action agreement.

President Donald Trump’s recent decision to overturn President Barack Obama’s 2016 ban on offshore Arctic drilling pushes the frontiers of fossil fuel extraction further north, right when the world is supposed to be sharply cutting back its carbon output. A dangerous Arctic paradox has opened: shrinking ice creates more space to compete over, which increases the pace of the onrush. Forces could be unleashed that endanger more than the spirit of polar cooperation. The health of the planet is at risk.

The Arctic is warming at least twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth. Making it easier to drill massive new fields of oil and natural gas would help fuel a climate catastrophe. Up to a quarter of the world’s undiscovered fossil fuel reserves are concealed north of the Arctic Circle. More than 80% of that lies beneath the sea, according to a U.S. Geological Survey estimate.

When Tillerson was Exxon’s CEO, he signed a $500 billion deal with Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned oil company, to find and tap Arctic reserves. That stalled under economic sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Exxon has asked the Treasury Department for an exemption in the Black Sea, a request that was rejected. If broader sanctions eventually do melt away with the Arctic ice, more cracks will undermine the 175-nation Paris Agreement to wean the world off fossil fuels.

Scientists warn the Far North may be near, or already past, a climate tipping point. Caught in a calamitous feedback loop, the planet’s natural air conditioner may be breaking down. Sea ice receded to a new record low at both poles this winter. At least three times, temperatures soared as high as 50 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. Ominous signs suggest the Greenland ice sheet may be headed for complete meltdown. That would raise sea levels by 24 feet, according to a recent study.

The U.S. military warns that rising seas already threaten coastal bases and “will present serious risks to military readiness, operations and strategy,” an expert panel reported last fall. Oil refineries along the Gulf Coast are increasingly vulnerable to storm surges. Around the world, millions of people living near oceans and river deltas may become refugees as homes and farms, factories and offices, end up under water.

For centuries, ice barriers have protected the High Arctic from the bloody competition for resources that has scarred other parts of the planet. They are collapsing. This opens new perils for international security. Russia is expanding on its substantial, Soviet-era lead in Arctic military power and civilian infrastructure. The Trump Administration is committed to responding to what it calls Russian aggression.

As the Arctic rapidly warms, and the sea ice barrier recedes, cooperation that has been the hallmark of circumpolar politics since the end of the Cold War is fracturing. “The Arctic is key strategic terrain,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress during his confirmation hearings. “Russia is taking aggressive steps to increase its presence there. I will prioritize the development of an integrated strategy for the Arctic.” Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s military buildup has included moving two brigades to the Far North, reopening several airstrips, and starting construction of a new base in the Laptev Sea.

Mattis also told Congress “climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today” and combat planners need to take a warming planet into account. That’s especially true in the Arctic, where Russia has long been the dominant power.

Russia has more icebreakers than the rest of the world combined, with plans for at least 11 more, including nuclear-powered vessels strong enough to penetrate ice several yards thick.

The U.S. Coast Guard has two seaworthy conventional icebreakers, the medium-class USCGC Healy and the much older USCGC Polar Star, a heavy icebreaker commissioned in 1976. The Coast Guard, which needs a fleet of six icebreakers according to a Department of Homeland Security assessment, has only one in the design stage. If built, it could cost $1 billion.

At a recent conference on the Arctic in Archangelsk, Putin tried to calm security concerns by stressing a desire to “maintain the Arctic as a space of peace, stability and mutual cooperation.” But Russia’s Arctic neighbors remain suspicious. Sweden brought back the military draft in March and, along with Finland, is debating whether to join NATO, which could spur Russia to further strengthen its Arctic forces.

The history of human conflict over resources is long and ugly, but it doesn’t have to spread to the top of the world. Russia’s military strength in the Arctic is still far below Cold War levels. Green energy sources are getting steadily cheaper, and becoming more widespread, which could persuade investors that pushing higher into the Arctic for fossil fuels isn’t worth it.

We still have time to pause, listen and heed the Arctic’s lessons, as the Inuit did long ago.

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