“Washington must awaken to the broader economic and security implications of climate change,” writes Scott G. Borgerson, an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Coast Guard, in an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs that explores the consequences of a melting Arctic
. “Being green,” emphasizes Borgerson, “is no longer a slogan just for Greenpeace supporters and campus activists; foreign policy hawks must also view the environment as part of the national security calculus.”
Borgerson outlines a mixed bag of sometimes-dramatic changes with important environmental and security implications for the United States. There will be damaging consequences for the fragile Arctic ecosystem, where polar bears are becoming increasingly endangered and fish have been appearing much farther north than ever before. Conversely, the huge new swaths of water now open to shipping and naval vessels will cut the distance between Rotterdam and Yokohama by 40 percent, and between Rotterdam and Seattle by 20 percent, significantly reducing ships’ fuel needs. Ships will also find it easier to avoid potentially unstable waters around the South China Sea and the Middle East (recall the Strait of Hormuz confrontation in January of this year).
During the last 23 years, 41 percent of the Artic’s multi-year ice has melted, and the American Geophysical Union predicts the first ice-free Arctic summer will occur in 2013. Russia’s behavior last summer indicates that it is keenly aware of the new ocean territory being uncovered; there could be as much as 586 billion barrels of oil in the territory it will seek to claim under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). And Russia is not the only country poised to lay claim to the newly available Arctic sea; Norway, Denmark, and Canada have also petitioned the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf for additional Arctic territory. Additionally, because Greenland’s recent farming boom could only be helped by a warming climate, Borgerson believes the country might be emboldened to petition Denmark for independence.
The United States has remained largely on the periphery of these issues, last issuing an executive statement in 1994. Borgerson writes that “the combination of new shipping routes, trillions of dollars in possible oil and gas resources, and a poorly defined picture of state ownership makes for a toxic brew.” The situation is especially unstable because it is not progressing within a single, clearly defined international legal framework. UNCLOS cannot be easily applied to the Arctic because of the region’s unique geography and a host of other complexities—the world’s longest and most geographically complicated continental shelf, legally defining the “Northwest Passage,” competing claims to the territory—working to confuse the situation. In addition, it deals exclusively with territory and does not address the many other ramifications of a warming Arctic. Furthermore, the United States prohibited the 1996 Arctic Council from addressing security concerns, so it is unavailable to deal with many of the burgeoning questions.
Borgerson calls for more robust U.S. involvement in shaping the future of this important territory, recalling the successful 1817 Rush-Bagot Agreement between Canada and the United States that demilitarized the Great Lakes and eventually formed the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation to manage the area. He also argues that because the United States and Canada jointly administer the North American Aerospace Defense Council (NORAD), they should be “perfectly capable of doing the same on the Arctic frontier.” Eventually, they could include other states in this management, especially Russia. “Self-preservation in the face of massive climate change,” writes Borgerson, “requires an enlightened, humble, and strategic response.”