Article by Kate Lamar, Photos courtesy of Barry Zellen
Barry Zellen, author, editor of the Center on Contemporary Conflict’s e-journal Strategic Insights and self-described ‘web commando’, recently had time to discuss his book Arctic Doom, Arctic Boom: The Geopolitics of Climate Change in the Arctic. The book is the third in a series that explores domestic and international issues facing the Arctic region.
The Arctic basin, which includes five nations – Russia, Canada, the U.S., Denmark and Norway –offers new, shorter shipping lanes and sits atop vast oil reserves. The region is set to become strategically more important as ice melt opens up new shipping lanes, shipping traffic increases and natural resources are more easily accessed.
“For most of history, Arctic trade routes have been largely a dream,” said Zellen. “But in the last few years, with the summer ice melts coming sooner and opening up larger portions of the Arctic basin to surface traffic, the long dream of the Northwest Passage is now approaching reality. In this book, I suggest the Arctic basin has the potential to become as strategically important to the future world as the Aegean and Mediterranean were to ancient times.”
Navigable shipping lanes through the Arctic would allow industries to transport goods between the U.S., Europe and Asia more quickly and more affordably. Increased shipping traffic requires more security measures, which require more people and more development.
“From a strategic perspective, the increased activity and the potential for disputes over resource deposits and use of shipping lanes has led some to worry about a new “Wild West” frontier where conflict could quickly escalate,” said Zellen.
So far the five Arctic nations, along with Iceland, Sweden and Finland who claim Arctic waterways, have been able to collaboratively manage issues. But as more industry focuses on the Arctic, the low population density and corresponding lack of infrastructure will pose challenges in the region.
“The huge scale of economic opportunity across the entire Arctic region, combined with its small populations and general lack of infrastructure, makes for some fascinating dynamics,” said Zellen. “There are a host of internal security issues unique to the North where living conditions and poverty levels resemble the Third World, described by Northerners as being a ‘Fourth World’ compounded by the region’s isolation and harsh climate, resulting in a host of social challenges and widespread despair - drug and alcohol abuse, violent crime, and youth suicide levels are off the charts.”
Many of these poverty-related issues could be tackled with development money if it is managed correctly and lands in the coffers of local communities. Many Arctic communities have already set up systems to help manage the growing industry and development.
“All across the Arctic, the indigenous peoples have resolved their outstanding land claims with the modern states that are sovereign across the Far North, and have set up new regulatory and co-management regimes to help strike a balance between economic development and environmental preservation, a dynamic balancing act between the various stakeholders of the region,” said Zellen, who believes future conflicts can be mitigated if such cooperation is institutionalized and applied on a broad scale.
“I see Arctic development as a potentially tremendous opportunity for the people of the region to escape poverty and for the Arctic states to diversify their energy and natural resources, enhance their energy security and decrease their reliance on sea lanes with chokepoints vulnerable to terrorism and piracy,” said Zellen.
An ongoing concern of many indigenous groups in the region is environmental degradation. In some instances, local populations have seemed prescient in their decision to stop lucrative development projects that did not have sufficient environmental safeguards in place.
“After the Exxon Valdez disaster, the Inuvialuit of the Western Arctic, fearful that an even greater catastrophe might unfold if there were an offshore oil drilling accident in the pristine Arctic waters, used their new tools of empowerment to derail the oil industry’s effort to commence offshore development,” said Zellen. “The Inuvialuit did their homework and realized twenty years ago that the oil companies did not have a plan in place if there was a deepwater offshore oil well blowout.”
“Regrettably, our own government let down its guard as it encouraged more and more deepwater offshore drilling over the horizon and out of sight – leading to the recent deepwater blowout at BP’s well in the Gulf,” said Zellen.
The Inuit’s model of balancing natural resource development with environmental preservation is one that will hopefully protect the Arctic region in the coming years.
“The Arctic is one of the world’s great treasures, home to creatures that might otherwise exist only in myth such as the polar bear, the muskox and unique marine creatures like the beluga whale and the narwhal,” said Zellen. “Going forward, ensuring the survival of these creatures is an important goal for all of the Arctic states, for the indigenous peoples who subsistence diets require them and for the modern states, which are more committed to preserving the world’s biological diversity than in past centuries.”
As the region continues to grow in strategic importance, how development is managed will become critical. So far, old rivalries have been put aside in favor of mutually beneficial partnerships.
“Last April the Norwegians and the Russians resolved their offshore border dispute, putting their joint economic interests before their traditional strategic competition dating back to before the Cold War era,” said Zellen. “And the U.S. and Canada appear to be now agreeing to disagree over the status of the Northwest Passage - Ottawa views it as internal waterways while we view it as high seas - and have been mapping the Arctic seabed together, even in the face of their lingering disagreements.”
With development continuing, the Arctic nations will face increasing challenges, potential conflict and opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation. Experts like Zellen, can help lead the way in guiding policy along the tempestuous Arctic waters.