The Arctic as a bridge

By Jayantha Dhanapala | February 4, 2013

No country owns the North Pole or the expanse of the Arctic Ocean surrounding it. The Arctic region has a population of about 4 million, including more than 30 distinct groups of indigenous people using dozens of languages; they have lived there for more than 10,000 years. The area also has a unique and diverse ecosystem that includes fish, marine mammals, birds, land animals, and a thriving web of bacteria, viruses, algae, worms, and crustaceans that live in sea ice.

The natural resources are vast and largely untapped. The US Geological Survey has estimated that 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered energy resources lie in the Arctic zone — especially in the submerged plateau, between the Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea known as the Chukchi Cap.

The Arctic has been vital to humanity’s development, and history has a strange way of repeating itself. What is now the Bering Strait was once a land bridge, across which humans migrated from Asia to the Americas. It promises today to be a maritime conduit for increased global commerce through the Arctic as human-induced climate change causes ice to melt and shipping lanes to open. This development has the potential to bring nations and peoples together for peace and development — or to spawn dispute and conflict.

There are in fact many reasons that the international community — and not just the countries with coastlines on the Arctic Ocean — should focus on the Arctic.

First, the world is increasingly interdependent, and the hard evidence of climate change proves that the felling of Amazon forests in Brazil and increased carbon dioxide emissions in China have a cumulative global impact, leading to the incipient disappearance of Tuvalu into the Pacific Ocean and the gradual sinking of the Maldives. In a literal sense, English poet John Donne’s celebrated line — “No man is an island, entire of itself” — is truer today than ever before. The environment of the Arctic affects the world environment.

Beyond its contribution to rising sea levels, the melting of the Arctic ice cap will facilitate the mining of resources, especially oil and gas, and lead to an increase in commercial shipping. The ownership of the resources and the sovereignty of Arctic areas, including the Northwest Passage, are already being contested. The applicability of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea has to be more sharply defined, especially in those areas of the Arctic where claims overlap. And clearly, access to the resources of the Arctic north is of concern to the global south, where the “bottom billion” people of the world live in extreme poverty. Increasingly, science shows that those people are going to be hit hardest by climate change. Some of those people also see the area outside the territory claimed by the littoral states of the Arctic as part of the global commons and, therefore, the shared heritage of humankind. A global regime could thus be established over the Arctic to mitigate the effects of climate change and to provide for the equitable use of its resources outside the territory of the eight circumpolar countries.

Third, as someone who has devoted most of his working life to the cause of disarmament, and especially nuclear disarmament, I am deeply concerned that two nuclear weapon states — the United States and the Russian Federation, which together own 95 percent of the nuclear weapons in the world — face one another across the Arctic and have competing claims. These claims — not to mention those that could be made by North Atlantic Treaty Organization member states Canada, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway — may lead to conflict that has the potential to escalate into the use of nuclear weapons. Thus the Arctic is ripe for conversion into a nuclear weapon free zone.

I discussed a fourth reason the international community should focus on the Arctic with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (who has in fact visited the Arctic on an icebreaker) when I met him in New York last fall. The Arctic, I told him, is the one region in the world where the environment (and climate change in particular), the threat of nuclear weapons, the human rights of indigenous people, and the need to advance the rule of law converge as international issues. The Arctic, therefore, offers a unique opportunity to make international diplomacy work for the benefit of the entire international community.

Security and interdependence. Security today is a concept that is much broader than military security alone. It encompasses international peace and security, human rights, and development. Twenty-first century security is also a cooperative and common security, in which one region’s insecurity inevitably and negatively affects the security of other regions of the world. And so Arctic security is inextricably interwoven with global security, giving us all a role as stakeholders in the north.

Geographer Jared Diamond’s impressive book, Collapse, shows that not every society faced with environmental collapse has gone under like Norse Greenland or the Mayan civilization. The Inuits, for example, have done much better on Greenland than the Norse and are still with us. Diamond identifies a society’s response to environmental problems as the most significant factor contributing to — or forestalling — its collapse. Long-term planning and a willingness to reconsider core values can stave off collapse, Diamond writes. This is the same lesson that British historian Arnold Toynbee provided in his A Study of History, with its descriptions of the challenges humankind has faced throughout history and the responses it has made.

The point, of course, is that there are solutions to the problems of Arctic security, but they are solutions based on multidisciplinary and multilateral co-operation. States party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and to the Kyoto Protocol met in late November and early December of 2012 in Doha, Qatar, in the midst of heightened concerns over climate change after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast of the United States. Even so, there was an unmistakable air of “business as usual” in the policies pursued at those meetings. And the subject of climate change was never even discussed in the recently concluded US presidential election.

The developed world has contributed disproportionately to the carbon emissions that cause climate change. Developing countries — notably China and India — are poised to follow this bad example. The Arctic circumpolar countries, linked together in the Arctic Council, are developed countries, and they could set a major precedent by taking steps to achieve cooperative solutions to the problems of Arctic security across the entire gamut of political, economic, ecological, social, and cultural aspects. It would be an example welcomed by the rest of the global community.

Observers from non-Arctic states, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations are included in the Arctic Council; China is applying for permanent observer status, presumably out of a strong interest in using the shorter shipping routes to Europe and the East Coast of North America via the Arctic Ocean, and in gaining access to resources in the region. A Chinese icebreaker conducted a three-month voyage through the Arctic in 2012; Chinese interest in mineral deposits has been evident. As Canadian international law and politics expert Michael Byers writes, “China and other non-Arctic countries are fully entitled to navigate freely beyond 12 miles from shore, to fish beyond 200 miles from shore, and to exploit seabed resources that lie beyond the continental shelf. … China is respecting international law and has legitimate interests in the Arctic. Its request for permanent observer status should be granted forthwith — and Canada should make this a priority of its chairmanship of the Arctic Council.”

An all-encompassing Arctic Treaty, signed a half century after the Antarctic Treaty, would be a major achievement. To those skeptics who dismiss a wide-ranging agreement as unrealistic and impossible, let me quote the great Norwegian explorer, scientist, and Nobel Peace Prize-winning diplomat Fridtjof Nansen, who said, “The difficult is what takes a little time; the impossible is what takes longer.”

Editor’s note: The Global Forum in the July/August 2012 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists features three authors — Yury Morozov from Russia, Rob Huebert from Canada, and George Backus from the United States — who explore the military, diplomatic, environmental, and economic outlook for the Arctic in 2030.

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