Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Multilateralism Is the Arctic's Only Hope

By Javier VegaPublished April 24, 2021

The Arctic Circle is warming at a rate double the global average. It plays a critical role in regulating the Earth’s climate as the world’s largest heat sink, it reflects more heat than it absorbs, cooling the entire planet. As sea ice melts, the Arctic’s global cooling capabilities will continue to diminish, and as more of the arctic melts, more heat will be absorbed than reflected. The Arctic also helps cool the equator by moving excess heat north, but the warmer the Arctic becomes, the less this process will benefit the equator. The more time passes before reform is enacted, the harder it will be to minimize climate change’s effects. As the Arctic warms, the tropic will overheat and become uninhabitable. The melting of the Arctic Circle opens it up to lucrative new economic opportunities in the oil and shipping industries. These opportunities force nations to make decisions that benefit themselves in the short term but doom the global community as well as the Arctic. The more the Arctic melts, the higher the profits, but also the greater the climatic shift. Considering the long-term effects for the global community, the Arctic response must be united and look at the bigger picture. Arctic warming has global implications; mitigating Arctic warming is imperative to avoiding the worst of climate change.

            As Arctic sea ice melts during the summer months, more of the Arctic Ocean becomes navigable by large tankers and cargo ships. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) stretches the entire Russian Arctic coast from the Kara Sea to the Bering Strait. Because much of the NSR is within the Russian Exclusive Economic Zone, Russia claims all of the NSR as its exclusive area. This claim is disputed by the US, which argues that as the Arctic landscape continues to change, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) dictates that all Arctic waters are international waters. The Suez Canal is the most important passage in Eurasian Trade, with 10% of all world trade moving through it. With the NSR, up to two thirds of all Suez trade will move through the Arctic instead. A shipping route from Western Europe to East Asia that runs through the Suez is about 21,000 km, but through the NSR that distance is nearly halved, at only 12,000 km. If the NSR becomes an economically viable Suez alternative, trade between Western Europe and East Asia could increase by 10%. How much this new trade route could save countries in shipping is difficult to calculate and depends heavily on how Russia operates around the NSR. Russia needs to balance its desire to exert control over the Arctic and the economic potential of a free-moving NSR. Renewed Russian interest in dominating Arctic affairs presence negatively impacts economic opportunity in the region, as the NSR is only economically viable if shipping costs are lower than going through the Suez. Russian hegemony and increased military presence raises the price of doing business in the area and challenges the accepted multilateralism of the Arctic Circle, making long lasting diplomatic solutions less likely in the future. The potential benefits of an ice-free NSR ignore the global ramifications in terms of rising sea levels and temperatures.

            The Arctic holds an estimated 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 20% of its natural gas reserves. Viewing the Arctic as a fossil fuel opportunity would doom the ecosystem and ice cap as fossil fuels are one of the driving causes climate change. Of the eight Arctic nations, four (Russia, the US, Canada, and Norway) are among the largest oil exporters in the world. Of those four, only Norway and Canada express concern for the Arctic climate and are attempting to move toward a greener economy, but despite their sincere goals in the Arctic, both face intense internal pressures to support their energy sectors. In Norway, oil is still over half of the nation’s exports and Canada moving away from oil could spell disaster for the northern province’s economies. Under the Obama Administration, the US enacted a moratorium on Arctic off-shore drilling, a policy the Trump Administration successfully overturned. Russian Arctic Strategy explicitly views the untapped Arctic as a resource to be exploited. Amid low oil prices, economic sanctions, and the pandemic’s effects, oil in the Arctic could help prop up Russia’s ailing economy. If the Arctic is to have a fighting chance, the decision on fossil fuel extraction in the Arctic needs to be a multilateral operation, but when one nation treats the Arctic as a primarily economic opportunity, the other nations will have no choice but to do so as well. Russian pressure in the Arctic has already forced Norway to pursue a more aggressive exploration policy, and Canada’s five-year moratorium on Arctic drilling is set to expire at the end of 2021.

All of these economic benefits ignore the harsh reality that fossil fuel extraction in the Arctic could doom the global climate. Any potential oil profits or shipping route cost reductions will be offset by the worldwide environmental degradation caused by climate change. Currently, less than 1% of the world’s landmass is uninhabitable. If climate change continues unmitigated, it could be 20% of the Earth by 2070, where over 1 billion people live. Action in the Arctic cannot be individual, and must consider the global good, not just the good of an individual nation.