The polar Arctic is one vast region of our planet where the effects of climate change are already much in evidence. Whether it’s glacial melting, opening up of new sea lanes, changing weather patterns, sea levels, shifts in ocean currents, seawater composition and marine populations or opportunities to discover and extract new energy and mineral resources, the unfolding environmental changes are bound to have long-lasting and profound implications not only for countries in the far north, but around the world.
Climate change in the Arctic, the opportunities and threats it poses and its security implications was the subject of a speech given by NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at a seminar in Reykjavik, Iceland January 29.
NATO’s secretary general addressed three principal topics in his speech: navigation, resources and territorial claims. NATO could play a constructive role in each of these areas, working with the eight-nation Arctic Council to develop and enact common organizational frameworks and coordinated mechanisms to respond to the emerging challenges, he said.
“Here in the High North, climate change is not a fanciful idea – it is already a reality – a reality that brings with it a certain number of challenges, including for NATO,” de Hoop Scheffer told attendees. “Although the long-term implications of climate change and the retreating ice cap in the Arctic are still unclear, what is very clear is that the High North is going to require even more of the Alliance’s attention in the coming years.”
New sea-lanes; mineral/energy resource exploration; territorial claims
As they offer significantly shorter, cheaper routes between the Far East and the West than the Panama and Suez canals, shipping activity will increase if warming continues to open up new sea-lanes and passages in the Arctic. The discovery and extraction of oil and natural gas, much of it likely to be shipped rather than transported by pipeline, would add to this. The potential for accidents requiring search-and-rescue missions will rise concomitantly, de Hoop Scheffer noted, adding that NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center has the equipment, resources and experience to coordinate relief efforts and support search-and-rescue operations.
The potential to discover and extract energy and mineral resources has oil and mining companies chomping at the bit, and governments looking to ensure that their respective nations get a share of the pie. Even if temperatures do increase, the Arctic will remain an inhospitable and relatively isolated region, however, de Hoop Scheffer continued, which means that companies, and governments, would need to invest large sums to discover and bring them to market. This opens up the possibility of conflicts over resource rights and international transport, as well as terrorist actions, developments that will impact NATO members and require the organization to address them.
NATO last year established guiding principles regarding its role in assuring security of energy supplies. These focus on five specific areas of possible NATO involvement, de Hoop Scheffer pointed out: fusion of information and intelligence; projecting stability; advancing international and regional cooperation; supporting consequence management; and supporting protection of critical infrastructure.
When it comes to territorial claims, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas is the established legal framework that applies to the Arctic Ocean, but there are differences of opinion when it comes delineation of 200-mile nautical limits of Exclusive Economic Zones and extension of continental shelves even among the Arctic coastal nations that make up the Arctic Council.
This has led to a military build-up and increased activity in the Arctic Ocean. While he doesn’t believe NATO has a role in arbitrating disagreements or interpreting the law, NATO can serve as a forum which Arctic coastal states can share and discuss developments and hash out differences of opinion. NATO members have a legitimate interest in participating in international discussions as to how to approach military capabilities and activity in the High North, he continued.