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The impacts of climate change on Arctic security

June 11, 2019


Reilly Bellen

The Arctic Council serves as a forum for both Arctic Indigenous peoples and nation-states to work cooperatively and address environmental and economic problems in the global north. As such, addressing the causes and effects of climate change has become a major focus for the Arctic Council’s work. The trend of rising global temperatures has caused dramatic recessions of Arctic sea ice, making it easier for ships to traverse the Arctic Ocean, and, to extract resources from the Arctic Ocean. While the melting ice is an environmental problem, it has the potential to become a major crisis with ramifications for international sovereignty and security. To prevent future conflicts between Arctic states over resources exposed by the receding ice, this paper identifies a hypothetical policy proposed by the Russian Federation to the Arctic Council, calling for the creation of a Task Force to examine how climate change will impact international security and sovereignty, and provide specific recommendations to member states on behalf of the Council on how to ensure the Arctic remains stable and peaceful throughout these environmental challenges.

In the Arctic, climate change has manifested itself primarily through the melting of snow and sea ice. This melting has caused sea levels to rise, and threatens to erode the foundations of Arctic settlements, as well as destroying the habitats of many mammals dependent on the ice sheets. However, while climate change has created environmental problems in the Arctic, it will also create issues around sovereignty and security. Melting sea ice will make it easier for ships to travel the Arctic Ocean, which will lead to an increase in the number of large, mainly cargo, ships, traversing the ocean. As sea ice melts, it will also allow for easier access to the seabed. This will, in turn, make it easier to survey and extract resources from the bottom of the ocean. Melting Arctic ice will create security issues for Arctic States, as they will have to regulate increased  traffic through their territory, and may come into conflict with one another over territorial claims, especially those which include valuable resources.[1]In the event of a  conflict between Arctic Nation-States over territorial or mineral rights, it is highly likely to involve the Russian Federation in some way. Russia has some of the most extensive territorial claims in the Arctic, having claimed ownership of both the geographic north pole and the massive underwater Lomonosov Ridge.[2]Additionally, Russia has more security forces in the Arctic than any other state, due to its desire to protect the Arctic as a strategic resource base.[3]This protection has resulted in the expansion of military facilities in the region to include 10 Search and Rescue bases, 16 deep water naval bases, 13 airfields, and another 10 radar stations, as well as the largest fleet in the Russian Navy.[4]This predominance of force in the region, as well as Russia’s large scale territorial claims, means Russia will have a large role to play in both the regulation of Arctic shipping and any potential territorial conflict. Therefore, it is in the best interests of the Russian Federation to cooperatively identify and resolve potential security issues, in order to prevent other Arctic States from aligning against it.

To prevent future conflicts in the region, Arctic nation-states must act decisively. Therefore, this paper proposes that the Arctic Council create a Task Force to investigate the impacts of climate change in the Arctic, with regard to how these changes will affect the security and sovereignty of Arctic nation states. This proposed investigation would concretely investigate the effects of climate change on security by identifying potential flashpoints and examining how warming temperatures will impact the other aspects of security, including transportation and communications infrastructure. This investigation would involve scientists and military personnel from Arctic states, and Indigenous peoples living in the general area of Arctic military installations and other potential conflict zones. This inclusion of Indigenous peoples in the study was driven by traditional Inuit knowledge, Inuit Qaujimaningit. Since Inuit Qaujimaningitcomes from the experiences of individuals out on the land, it is hoped that by including Indigenous peoples in the survey that they will provide their knowledge of local conditions, how these conditions have changed over time, and how these changes have impacted their daily lives. As the primary residents of the Arctic, any potential conflict would have a severe and negative impact on its native peoples. This reliance on Indigenous knowledge would also allow the task force to make more localized observations through both western scientific and Indigenous methods. Once the data had been gathered, it could be jointly presented by scientist and Indigenous peoples at a closed session of the Arctic Council, or through other back channels, to ensure that only Arctic Council members have access to this information.

It is recommended that this proposal be brought to the Arctic Council when Russia regains the chair in 2021. While this could significantly delay implementation, it would also make it easier to accomplish. As chair, Russia would control the agenda of the Arctic Council and could ensure that this proposal was at least discussed by the Council’s members. To get this proposal onto the agenda, it could be argued that a precedent for this “soft” security discussion was established by the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement (SAR), which divided the Arctic up into zones of responsibility for search and rescue and established what aspect of government was responsible. It could be argued that the SAR agreement was a type of “soft” security, the security of Arctic residents and travelers from the environment. Through this lens, this policy could be viewed as an attempt to protect nation-states from the environment, and following the precedent set by the SAR.[5]  It is recommended that this policy be brought to the Arctic Council, rather than to individual nations, or forums like the U.N. because the Arctic Council represents not just Arctic nation-states, but Arctic Indigenous groups, as well as Non-Arctic states and non-Indigenous groups with interests in the region. All these groups would suffer negative consequences of increased militarization and conflicts over resources in the Arctic, as well as from damages to Arctic infrastructures like telecommunications and transport.

However, implementing this policy on the Arctic Council will not be easy. In order for the United States to join the Arctic Council, the Council had to agree that discussion of all security topics was explicitly forbidden. Any proposal for this policy would have to find a way to overcome this ban. Even if Russia was able to get this policy onto the Council’s agenda it is likely that the United States would oppose it, since the U.S.  fought to remove security from the council’s agenda. Since the Arctic Council is a consensus organization, where all members must agree for something to be adopted, American opposition will likely prevent this policy from being officially condoned by the Council. Secondly, the Russian Federation would be unlikely to include Indigenous organizations in its policies, since it is opposed to any measure that leads to greater Indigenous autonomy To Russia, greater Indigenous autonomy and participation could challenge Russian sovereignty. Lastly, this study could actually result in an increased militarization of the Arctic. If states have a greater awareness of potential military problems, they could choose to increase their security forces in the regions, in an attempt to deter their rivals from taking provocative action. This could appear threatening to other states, leading to similar buildups across the region. The Cold War mentality of Arctic relations could return, with states refusing to communicate and cooperate out a deep suspicion of other states, essentially undoing all the work of the Arctic Council and Indigenous Permanent Participants to create an atmosphere of transnational cooperation.

To implement this policy on the Arctic Council, the first step would be to secure American support.  This would have to be done through Track II diplomacy, as there would be no point in bringing this policy all the way to the Council, only to have it rejected by the U.S. Additionally, by endorsing this policy, the United States could signal how this type of security matter is acceptable for discussion. If the U.S. endorsed a security measure proposed by Russia, it could encourage other states to accept it as a sign of decreasing tensions and increased cooperation between two longtime rivals. This policy is needed because climate change is both literally and figuratively altering the geopolitical environment of the Arctic region, and for the Council to be effective, it needs to address this issue more thoughtfully. While climate change is causing significant problems for the Earth’s environment, it is important to recognize that it will also disrupt the traditional system of international relations. To understand how climate change will affect international relations in the Arctic, it is best to start with the primary concern of states, security. By examining how climate change will affect security in the Arctic, it can help states be more aware of potential problems which in turn could lead to a decreased militarization, as states already know where and what these issues are and have plans in place to solve them. By bringing this security issue to the Arctic Council, it could help the Member States cooperate better on such sensitive matters as security as well as open the door for future security discussions. This opening could help reorient the Arctic Council away from purely environmental concerns and help it become a more effective body, that addresses all aspects of transnational cooperation in the region.

[1]Joshua W. Busby. Climate Change and National Security: An Agenda for Action. JSTOR.Org. (accessed March 10, 2019).

[2]Annika Bergman Rosamond. PERSPECTIVES ON SECURITY IN THE ARCTIC AREA. Report. Danish Institute for International Studies, 2011. (accessed March 9, 2019).

[3]Pavel Devyatkin. Russia’s Arctic Strategy: Military and Security. The Arctic (Accessed March 5, 2019).

[4]Micheal Nudelmen and Jeremy Bender. This Map Shows Russia’s Dominant Militarization of the Arctic. Business Insider. . (Accessed 10 March 2019).

[5]The Arctic Council. Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronatutical and maritimee Search and Rescue in the Arctic. Nuuk: The Arctic Council. (Accessed March 12th, 2019)


This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.