The cold and barren Arctic, “who would ever want to go there,” you might think. Even with climate change causing global warming, it is hardly a place to go on a summer holiday. Yet, in the face of a great decrease in Arctic ice mass, an international battle for the Arctic has arisen over claims of Arctic sovereignty. The melting of ice opens up new waterways and creates access to a great amount of natural resources – the estimations are that about 30% of the natural gas and 13% of the oil in the world lies beneath this ice – and the Arctic countries want their share. However, the exploitation of these natural resources will only lead to a greater climate change threat and risk of oil spills and gas leaks, and Inuit, an indigenous people scattered across the Arctic regions of Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia, are concerned for their livelihood. One thing is certain: climate change in the Arctic has the ability to reshape global political boundaries.
While the Arctic was covered in a thick layer of ice and barely reachable by any means, it didn’t really matter whether the North Pole was part of Canada, Alaska (US), Norway, Russia or Greenland (Denmark). Yet now that it becomes possible to exploit natural resources in the Arctic region, it is important to figure out who can drill where. According to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, which the US still has not ratified, one can claim 200 nautical miles from the coastline to be within one’s territory and more if one can prove that the seabed extends further and is part of the same continental shelf. This leaves a big part of the Arctic out of any country’s claim and scientists are desperately tracing the ocean floor to see where the fault lines lie.
Furthermore, the Northwest Passage is now ice-free for a part of the year, making a shorter sea route from Europe to Russia. Canada has always claimed the Northwest Passage as an internal waterway, but now that the Arctic Ocean will bear more resemblance to the other oceans in the world, a.k.a. accessible, several countries across the world argue it should become an international waterway. In practice, Canada has little control over the ships sailing the Northwest Passage anyways: foreign cruise ships and foreign navy vessels have already entered this strait.
This race for the Arctic lands and its resources comes with a great securitization politics, involving the militarization of the Arctic. All Arctic countries have increased military material and manpower in the Arctic. This not only serves to assist in emergency situations but also seems a means to deal with the territorial threat the countries pose to each other. Even China has become involved in monitoring the Arctic. One can argue that there really is an old-time ‘battle for the Arctic’: Russia has even planted a flag beneath the North Pole. However, whether this really results in an armed battle remains to be seen.
The focus on sovereignty and the militarization that comes with it leads to the negligence of other pillars of Arctic policy, such as environmental protection and social and economic development for people that inhabit the North. Inuit fear for their livelihood due to developments regarding resource exploitation and the greater influx of people that are attracted by the economic possibilities. Moreover, this is a question of environmental injustice: Inuit bear most of the consequences in case of an environmental disaster but have little benefits from these developments. Inuit have come together in the Inuit Circumpolar Council, where they strive for sovereignty and their rights to self-determination. Inuit rights have not been recognized nearly well enough in all countries, while several land claims agreements and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People state Inuit have a right to decide what happens to these lands.
Through the surfacing of political questions long buried beneath the Arctic ice, climate change gives way to new political divisions, but also to unities. Climate change is not only about reshaping the global climate system: it also reshapes political boundaries.
Battle for the Arctic – Al Jazeera
Interested in hearing more on the Arctic? Stay tuned for my next article on what makes Inuit so vulnerable to climate change.