An environmental security threat
is heating up in one of the world’s coldest places: the North Pole. Climate change is causing the polar ice caps to melt, making the Arctic’s vast oil and natural gas reserves more easily accessible. But because this area was previously nearly impossible to access, the rights to the territory are in dispute, with the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark all laying claim to it.
Russia recently initiated a flood of diplomatic posturing when it sent two mini-submarines to plant a rust-proof, titanium Russian flag on the Arctic seabed, four kilometers beneath the polar ice cap. Leaders of the other four countries with claims to the area responded with skepticism and dismay. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also reiterated Canada’s claim to the fabled Northwest Passage (it previously claimed ownership in 1973)—which the U.S. officially views as an international strait. Ownership of the Arctic was also on the agenda at a previously-scheduled meeting of Bush, Harper, and Mexican President Felipe Calderon earlier this week in Quebec.
One reason why this controversy is so fascinating—and has been getting so much attention in the media—is that it is of interest to so many different communities. There are industry players and observers who want to know how these new fuel reserves will affect businesses; students of national security and politics who are intrigued by the delicate symbolic and rhetorical dance that is unfolding; scientists who are curious as to what the five countries’ new geological exploratory missions will discover; and environmentalists who are concerned about the increased climate change (and localized environmental degradation) that extracting and burning the fossil fuels under the Arctic would likely produce.
Technically, the Arctic ownership debate will be resolved by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, a group of lawyers and geologists who will rely on the 1994 Law of the Sea Treaty to help determine the validity of ownership claims. But because the stakes are so high—in terms of natural resources as well as political prestige—it seems unlikely that compromise and caution will prevail unless the commission sends a strong message that it will not tolerate Cold War-style intimidation or theatrics.