Russia exploits climate change in the Arctic, ignoring threat to infrastructure
The U.S. government has now added the Arctic to the areas that are the focus of its security interests. This is in response to Russia’s ongoing military buildup in the region and the appearance of Chinese submarines in the Arctic. But if we are to take a serious interest in the Arctic, we will have to invest enormous resources there and recognize what drives the new rivalries here.
That force is climate change. Global warming is melting ice and making the Arctic Ocean much more navigable than ever before. Global warming is making increased inter-continental trade possible — and the military and strategic considerations follow trade. This is certainly true for China even though it is not a Polar country. If Washington and its allies will now contest the Arctic against Russia and China then we must not only make major investments in Polar capabilities we must also understand the strategic context.
Defending entry into the North Atlantic from the Arctic is critical to allied security and we must also defend Alaska where the Pacific and Arctic Oceans come together. Defense here goes beyond investing in military capabilities that can operate in the Arctic, like icebreakers. It also means grasping the significance of climate change.
Just as climate change gives opportunities for expanded trade it also poses major dangers that Arctic governments are not yet prepared to confront. Continuing to deny climate change cripples our ability to defend the territories we have now against natural disasters, not to mention the Arctic areas that are of vital interest to us.
But we are not alone in this regard. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed out in his recent speech in Finland, even though we are poised to leave the Paris Agreement, we are doing a better job than many of the signatories to that treaty in observing its guidelines. And some Arctic countries like Russia, despite their huge investment in Arctic energy and military installations, are courting disaster because of their lack of sound environmental planning and policy.
Scientists report that the temperature inside Russia is increasing 2.5 times more than anywhere else in the world. Roaming polar bears whose habitats have been undermined or destroyed have now turned up in the Russian Arctic communities threatening those settlements. Consequently, This animal-human interaction will increase with climate change as natural habitats undergo the effects of massive ecological disruption and create opportunities for new epidemics like the Anthrax that struck Yakutsk in 2016. Russian scientists now warn against other unknown pathogens that will be let loose in the population. Scientists also report that melting of Arctic ice can open the way to a return of pre-historic diseases, which could highly increase the likelihood of epidemics.
Western and Russian scientists have also found that global warming is causing the erosion of Russia’s shoreline by about 4 meters yearly, leading to approximately one accident there every three months involving power stations, roads, gas and oil pipelines and other infrastructure. Moscow has built and is building nuclear power stations, nuclear-powered icebreakers, chemical facilities, and communications installations in the Arctic while rivers, and shorelines there are all at risk. Indeed, in 2017 alone over 100 events occurred harming such facilities. The consequences of doing nothing are obvious.
In fact, global warming could become particularly dangerous for the Russian North and experts know it. A 2017 U.S. study observed that Russia’s Arctic infrastructure is at risk form global warning and that, within a generation, buildings in the Arctic will be at risk of sinking into the ground and collapsing.
Beyond the threat to infrastructure of all kinds climate change will also complicate every step of the process of extraction of hydrocarbons and raw materials, not to mention their refining and transport to production and markets. This is by no means an isolated warning. Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources issued a report in 2018 on the environment that claimed that a “climate apocalypse” confronts Russia because global warming is hitting it harder than any other country on the planet. Kommersant reported that there already had been an increase in fires, storms, droughts and flooding in many parts of Russia, threatening not only more fatalities but also critical infrastructure.
This may be a Russian crisis but it is a warning to us as well. If the Arctic is a priority for us, are we prepared to stop denying climate change and make the necessary investments? These investments mean preserving the health of our Arctic population, ensuring the security of our Arctic infrastructure and defending vital Arctic lands and sea lanes. The budgetary facts have shown that we are not prepared to do so. Will the Trump administration confront the paradox that Arctic climate change not only creates possibilities for trade and energy extraction, it also generates real threats to our security and health?
Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former professor of Russian National Security Studies and National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College.