Will Climate Change Launch the Next World War?
By now, most people have conceded that global warming — or the more comprehensive term, global climate change — is inevitable. Natural and manmade greenhouse emissions, changes in our sun’s solar output, and black carbon particulates in the air have assured us of that. There is also little doubt that we are quickly approaching a tipping point, in which changes to our global climate will begin to rapidly accelerate. Just as the COVID-19 pandemic began with a few hundred cases and quickly skyrocketed into the millions, so too will the pace of climate change begin to accelerate at an unfathomable rate. The only questions that remain are, “how will these changes affect the Earth?” and more importantly, “how will they affect us?”
Why will climate change accelerate?
The Arctic ice sheet is already shrinking at an alarming rate. When sea ice melts, it allows more sunlight to be absorbed by the dark, open ocean, which in turn reflects less sunlight, melting even more sea ice. It is a runaway process. To compound matters, as permafrost (frozen soil) thaws, it releases greenhouse gases (methane and carbon dioxide) that have been locked away for years, further accelerating the pace of global warming. Face it folks, the train has left the station, and we all need to be prepared for what happens next.
What can we expect from these changes?
When the average person considers the effects of climate change, they likely think about global sea level rise, flooding coastal cities, inundating small islands, and displacing millions of people, but this may just be the tip of the iceberg (no pun intended). Lesser-known impacts of climate change include the geopolitical and national security implications. Territorial disputes that exist in the Arctic will worsen as sea ice recedes and the area becomes more accessible for commercial fishing, shipping, and energy development. Russia has already staked claim to a portion of the Arctic Ocean seabed beneath the North Pole to secure the mineral rights beneath the polar ice cap.
The Arctic has always been a strategically important region due to its wealth of natural resources, including oil and gas, coal, and rare-earth metals. Melting sea ice will make it easier to extract these resources and also open up waterways for new commercial shipping routes, commercial fisheries, and even regional tourism. Thus, there is a strong economic benefit to securing the largest possible piece of Arctic real estate. The region is also strategically positioned from a military perspective, which is why Russia has been actively establishing new military bases in the Arctic and refurbishing old abandoned ones.
Increasing geopolitical tension
Friction between countries bordering the Arctic already exists and portends a sign of things to come. The U.S. and Canada disagree over territories of the Beaufort Sea, which hold promise of great oil reserves, and Russia and the U.S. have never officially agreed to their maritime boundary in the Bering Sea. Canada, Denmark, and Russia cannot agree on ownership of the Lomonosov Ridge, a 1,100 mile-long submarine ridge of the Arctic Ocean. Each country believes this oceanic ridge is an extension of their own continental shelf, while countries not involved in the dispute, like the U.S., claim it is not a part of any nation’s continental shelf. Heck, even Canada and Denmark are at odds over ownership of a tiny little island (Hans Island) between Ellesmere Island and northern Greenland!
According to a 2016 U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress (DoD, 2016), Canada has staked its claim to all waters within the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, which includes the Northwest Passage. Travel through these waters, between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, requires permission from Canada. The U.S. views this as an international strait and does not recognize Canada’s claim, nor does the European Union or other nations. Not surprisingly, Russia makes a similar claim to three international straits along the Northern Sea Route.
Increased tension and disputes could even erupt between Arctic and non-Arctic nations over access to Arctic shipping routes and natural resources. Non-Arctic nations, such as France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, and others have formed coalitions to increase their influence in the region. China, in particular, has shown a growing interest in the Arctic.
Are we ready for what is to come?
If nations cannot resolve their territorial disputes when the Arctic is a harsh, inaccessible area, how will they be able to agree on anything when the region opens up and the stakes are much higher? The Council on Foreign Relations (Allen and Whitman, 2017) projects that over 400 mining and drilling sites will become accessible in the Arctic in less than 20 years. The Arctic is estimated to hold 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil, or nearly 6% of the world’s oil reserves, and 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, representing over 24% of the world’s gas reserves according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS, 2008). Hmm… does anyone else see the parallels to the Middle East? That region has been fraught with oil wars for over a century.
Let’s not forget about the wealth of salmon, crab, halibut, herring, and other seafood. Tensions may arise over commercial fishing rights, potential over-fishing, and protection of species. And who will decide which cruise ships have priority as more and more waterways become navigable? Clashes between nations, as well as crashes between ships, seem inevitable.
Lastly, while it is not the focus of this article, I need to discuss the impact all this will have on the indigenous populations. Native peoples have survived hundreds of years largely through subsistence hunting, herding, and fishing, and these communities are already struggling to hold onto their traditional way of life. Not only will these populations likely not benefit from the economic boon in the Arctic, they will also likely lose their ancestral lands and their traditional way of life. And that makes me very sad.
Allen, Thad W., and Christine T. Whitman. 2017. “Arctic Imperatives: Reinforcing U.S. Strategy on America’s Fourth Coast.” Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). CFR Press. Accessed August 12, 2020. https://www.cfr.org/report/arctic-imperatives.
DoD. 2016. “Report to Congress on Strategy to Protect United States National Security Interests in the Arctic Region.” U.S. Department of Defense. Accessed August 12, 2020. https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2016-Arctic-Strategy-UNCLAS-cleared-for-release.pdf.
USGS. 2008. “Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal: Estimates of Undiscovered Oil and Gas North of the Arctic Circle.” U.S. Department of the Interior. U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2008–3049. https://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2008/3049/fs2008-3049.pdf.