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A Climate-Induced Arms Race Heats up the Arctic

Lucy Lönnqvist | Climate Fellow

Image credit: Art Guzman via Pexels

The shrinking Arctic has revealed the geopolitical battlefield of once-inaccessible shipping routes, kick-starting the race for potentially priceless minerals and oil deposits. What was once the world’s neutral ground, an undisturbed, barren white sheet of uninhabited land, has now become a hotspot for increased violence and potential conflicts between three invested powers: Russia, USA and China. An arms race has begun in the Arctic, and Western efforts are lagging behind.

This climate-induced Artic conflict demonstrates that the time has come for global warming mitigation to be placed at the heart of national security strategies and defence planning across the world. If governments cannot raise efforts to mitigate global warming for biodiversity’s sake, the question remaining is whether they will take greater action when global alliances are on the line.

The Arctic Region encompasses eight states, Russia, United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. They sought to preserve the Arctic as a region of cooperation, low tension, and respect for international law. An approach referred to as “High North, low tension”. However, hopes for pacificity between sovereign states in the region seem to be melting alongside the ice sheets themselves, as world powers USA, Russia, and China extend their grip in this polar arena.

Russia’s increased military presence, as well as China’s increased diplomatic and economic activities in the region are all sources of tension. Russia’s exclusion from the Arctic Council as a consequence of its war in Ukraine has incentivised increased collaboration towards China. A decision which will undoubtedly strengthen the dual powers. At the same time, Russia has expanded military forces across their share of the Arctic frontier of 25000 kilometres, amounting to 53 per cent of the Arctic border.

But why is the Artic region so sought-after, and how has the region changed geographically due to climate change?

Physical changes in the Arctic comprise of melting permafrost, intense cyclones, warming sea ice, and vegetation alterations. All of which have been driven by emissions and the nature of global warming feedback loops within the atmosphere. A monitoring report conducted by the Arctic Council in 2019 concluded that “the Arctic biophysical system is now clearly trending away from its previous state [in the 20th century] and into a period of unprecedented change, with implications not only within but also beyond the Arctic.”

The melting Arctic has effectively opened a whole ocean entirely, with new navigation routes being explored for the first time in recorded history. The most highly disputed path is the Northern Sea Route, which has paved new transport circuits for containerships and Navy missions, cutting shipping distances by over 6500 kilometres – roughly two weeks of travel time. Russia upholds its claim over Northern Sea Route as an inland waterway that falls under its territory, whereas the US defends the idea that the Northern Sea Route is an international route. For China, as the leading exporter of goods across the world, the Northern Sea Route is a pivotal passageway from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean, allowing the country to trade with enhanced efficiency.

This new ocean requires balancing competing claims of sovereignty over international waters and maritime borders in the Arctic. The only regulation calming the Arctic waters is the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Currently, Denmark, Norway, Canada, and Russia use UNCLOS to lodge legal claims on the Arctic Ocean, however the US is not a party to this treaty, placing the country further behind in the global contest over the polar North. If the US is serious about playing catch-up however, signing the UNCLOS treaty would prove worthwhile. This is highly unlikely as the US has not ratified any UN treaties since 2002 in fear that tying itself to international laws would make it vulnerable to potential legal sanctions before the ICC.

Rather than sign the UNCLOS treaty, the US has elected to ramp up military presence in the Arctic, with the White House committing to "enhancing the capabilities required to defend our interests in the Arctic," as outlined in the October 2022 National Strategy for the Arctic Region. Consequently, there has been a soar in US spending on ships, aircrafts, infrastructure, and soldiers disguised under the title of ‘climate expenditure’. It is almost ironic to see that although there has been no bipartisan support to curb emissions, there is bipartisan support for responding to Russia and China’s presence on a melting Arctic. Meanwhile, Russia has already begun expanding its armed presence in the Arctic well beyond US presence, through an abundance of airfields, missile systems, and nuclear-powered icebreakers in the region.

What this ultimately demonstrates is that as we look forward, the influence that the climate has on national security strategies is only going to grow. The seriousness of climate threats must be accounted for in state’s defence budget and planning. Rising sea levels, extreme weather, the scarcity of water, loss of ice cover, and other climate change drivers are impacting human security today through the spread of epidemics, mass displacement of people, and disputes over receding resources – all of which require a security response to protect populations and prevent tensions erupting.

Soon enough we may be looking at an altered map of the world. One with military competition occurring in places it never has before. The Arctic is interconnected with the rest of the world through the circulation of water, heat, and carbon both in our oceans and atmosphere. Not to mention, its role in human systems of transport, energy and mineral production, tourism, and security. In light of this, keeping disputes of sovereignty over the melting Arctic and invested military powers at bay should be a priority around the globe. This means calling on a climate defence strategy that treats our environmental crises with utmost severity.

Lucy Lönnqvist is the Climate Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She studies Economics and Political Science at Sciences Po Paris.

Having worked for over a month at a refugee camp located in the former Calais jungle in France’s North, as well as regularly conducting migrant permanences at the Franco-Italian border, Lucy is well-versed in the study of refugee rights protection, and is particularly excited to publish her first hand knowledge on migration as a climate-adaptation strategy, delving into global affairs sitting at the intersection of international law, migration and climate change.


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