When the Ice is Gone

Real Arctic security won't come from enforcing Canada's right to extract natural resources from the Arctic argues Wilfrid Greaves.
By: /
December 11, 2013
PhD candidate, Department of Political Science and Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto

For more on the Arctic, see our series Cold Calculations: The Politics of Arctic Development.

In the Arctic, climate change isn’t a question: it is a reality that is reshaping all human relations in and with the region.  As identified by numerous studies, notably the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment and the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in October, Arctic sea ice is melting and doing so faster than climate models predicted just a few years ago.  The result has been record low ice levels years before they were predicted to occur.  In 2011, Arctic summer sea ice reached an historic low of 35% less than the 1979-2000 average.  In 2012, Greenland experienced its warmest summer in over 170 years.  The Arctic, a region characterized by its frigid climate and the frozen ocean that forms its core, is predicted to be free of summer ice in as little as 30 years.

Accompanying the loss of ice is a wide range of physical changes that are occurring across the region, including increased lake temperatures, thawing permafrost, stress on plant and animal populations, new forms of invasive species, and melting glaciers.  The warming environment is undermining the integrity of critical infrastructure across the Arctic; many communities and industrial facilities in coastal zones are threatened, and some have already been forced to relocate.  Moreover, as warming accelerates there is growing concern among scientists that the melting Arctic permafrost will release vast quantities of methane into the atmosphere, rapidly and dramatically contributing to runaway climate change.  Taken together, these environmental changes signify a radical and irrevocable transformation of the northern circumpolar region.

As climate change transforms the Arctic, it is also transforming how Arctic states understand the relationship between their national security and the natural environment.  Across the circumpolar region, states have reassessed the meaning of ‘Arctic security’ in light of the changing climate, with many issuing new policies and pursuing new security governance practices to respond to the challenges posed by warmer temperatures and reduced ice cover.  The growing volume of maritime traffic in increasingly ice-free Arctic waters has led to an unprecedented degree of cooperation among Arctic states, largely through the Arctic Council, including new agreements on regional search and rescue and oil spill emergency response.  Circumpolar states have made continuous efforts to resolve disputes over poorly delineated or contested borders peacefully and diplomatically, and ongoing questions over the extent of Arctic states’ extended maritime boundaries, and claims to the seabed underneath, are being adjudicated under international law by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.  The deadline for Canada to make its submission to the Commission was last week, and some experts expect Canada’s new claim to conflict with those of Russia and Denmark, as well as territory claimed by the United States, which is not a party to the international treaty that created the Commission.  But though territorial disputes remain, all Arctic states continually emphasize the absence of any conventional military threat in the region and reaffirm their commitments to peaceful resolution of all Arctic boundaries.  Despite past predictions to the contrary, there is little to suggest that the warming environment will result in violent interstate conflict or military tensions in the region.

However, such traditional understandings of ‘security’ in the Arctic overlook a different set of relevant factors.  Despite the cooperative and increasingly institutionalized regional governance regime for the Arctic, current assessments of future prospects for the region tend to be uncritically optimistic.  Behind rosy visions of reduced sea ice and warmer seasons leading to the emergence of an ‘Arctic Mediterranean’ booming with the growth of maritime shipping, industrial activity, and natural resource extraction, lurks the spectre of profound insecurity for people living in the Arctic and beyond.  As states pivot their Arctic policies to increasingly focus upon the extraction of natural resources made possible by climate change, there is virtually no mention of the paradox that underpins the Arctic resource boom: climate change, caused by hydrocarbon consumption on a global scale, will be massively worsened by the development of Arctic hydrocarbon resources that are only accessible because of climate change.  Notwithstanding the unknown impact on the climate system of variables such as methane escaping from melting permafrost, the extraction of Arctic energy resources has profound implications for the security of Arctic states and peoples – implications that are either downplayed or ignored in the official policies of Arctic states.


The hydrocarbon-human security paradox

Climate change is the elephant in the room for states’ Arctic policies; it is present, but primarily treated as the context in which mainly positive opportunities for industry and investment in the Arctic are occurring.  Insofar as climate change features in the security policies of Arctic states, it is with respect to the military and political implications of the vanishing sea ice, such as the increasingly navigable Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route, the increased risks to military and commercial vessels in the region, and the need for greater cooperation in search and rescue.  Implicit but less examined, however, is that Arctic states have identified the economic opportunities made possible by climate change, particularly the prospect of increased development of offshore oil and gas, as core national security interests in the region.  The Arctic’s massive stores of hydrocarbon resources – estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey to be 90 billion barrels of oil (13% of undiscovered global reserves) and 46 trillion cubic metres of natural gas (30% of undiscovered global reserves) – are considered central to the economic interests and future prosperity of the Arctic states specifically, and the global economy in general.  The reason why Canada and its Arctic neighbours are maneuvering over their competing claims to extended maritime boundaries under the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf is precisely because each wishes to establish sovereignty over as large a swath of the resource-rich ocean floor as possible.  For Canada and other states, ‘Arctic sovereignty’ is not merely for its own sake or to defend against military or political hostility, but because circumpolar states wish to ensure that they reap the greatest possible economic benefits from future resource extraction in the region.

Little attention has been paid to the security implications of climate change in and of itself, and the profound implications for regional human security that will accompany the destabilization and transformation of the Arctic ecosystem.  Underpinning this inattention is an uncomfortable paradox: the same human-caused climate change that is enabling access to offshore Arctic hydrocarbon resources is also destabilizing the Arctic environment and negatively impacting the environment and human security in the region.  This results in a feedback loop whereby climate change will be exacerbated and accelerated by the extraction and consumption of those hydrocarbon resources, which in turn will further expand access to such resources. And yet Arctic states have broadly disregarded the claims made by many scholars and Northern communities with respect to climate change-induced environmental insecurity, and have focused their national policies instead on the economic benefits of exploiting largely untapped stores of Arctic resources.

In this respect, Arctic states are more pro-development than many organizations representing the inhabitants of the Arctic, though there is significant debate over just how people, especially Arctic Indigenous peoples, feel about industrial development in their homeland.  Dozens of Northern organizations have signed the Joint Statement of Indigenous Solidarity for Arctic Protection calling for a moratorium on Arctic oil drilling, but leading Inuit groups have rejected this statement as an example of voice-appropriation by Southern-based NGOs that do not speak on their behalf.  They point instead to the Inuit Declaration on Resource Development Principles, which reserves the right of Inuit to benefit from the development of natural resources on their traditional territories while stipulating that Inuit “have a shared responsibility to evaluate the risks and benefits of their actions through the prism of global environmental security.”  The prospect of expanded hydrocarbon resource extraction in the Arctic places Northern communities in the unenviable position of demanding that they benefit from industrial activity which contributes to climate change, and which they do not necessarily support, but which Inuit insist they must benefit from if it will inevitably occur as governments insist.

States’ emphasis upon economic development as the definitive aspect of Arctic security seems to be at odds with the views of many Arctic residents.  In Canada, for instance, the 2010 Arctic Security Public Opinion Survey suggests that the federal Government’s view of resource development is not strongly shared among Northerners.  When asked to list the most pressing Arctic issues, one third (33%) of Northern respondents listed the environment first, followed by housing and community infrastructure (9%), and the economy, jobs and employment (7%).  When prompted with a list of various dimensions of ‘security’, environmental security was ranked as most important by large majorities of all Canadians, followed, in descending order, by social, economic, cultural/linguistic, and national security.  Overall, 91% of Northerners considered environmental security to be important to their definition of security in the Canadian Arctic, compared to 78% who felt the same for economic security.  Insofar as Northern Canadians think in terms of ‘Arctic security’, it seems clear that they place the environment equal to or above other considerations.

The fact that Arctic residents prioritize environmental and social concerns above others is unsurprising given the significant impacts of climate change on the Arctic ecosystem, altering the lives of more than 4 million people across the circumpolar region.  Researchers have identified at least nine ways in which climate change exacerbates hazards to human health in the Arctic.  There is growing loss of life among hunters and other people travelling on the land and across the water as harsh and erratic weather conditions combine with thin and unpredictable ice.  Coastal erosion, melting permafrost, and extreme weather are forcing hundreds of communities from Alaska to Siberia to rebuild or relocate as buildings collapse when the ground beneath them gives way.

Thinning sea ice, changing vegetation, invasive species, altered migration patterns, and increased variability and unpredictability of weather also reduce the quality and availability of traditional foods such as caribou, seal, fish, and berries, contributing to hunger and food insecurity for many Arctic residents, particularly Indigenous persons.  Changes to the land fundamentally alter the ways Indigenous peoples subsist in their traditional territories, undermining multi-generational knowledge of weather and climate patterns, animal movements, and methods of hunting and gathering, which has wide-reaching implications for Indigenous cultures and identities.

Climate change also worsens other longstanding hazards, including the threat to human and animal health posed by transboundary pollution such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) within the Arctic ecosystem.  Produced by heavy industries located far from the Arctic, these chemical compounds cause increased rates of cancer and neurological damage in children, and are aggravated by other pollutants such as black soot and unresolved contamination from military and industrial activity conducted during the Cold War.  POPs are particularly dangerous because they biomagnify, becoming increasingly concentrated in animals at the higher end of the food chain, culminating in humans.  Moreover, the severity of POP contamination is directly worsened by climate change because warmer temperatures simultaneously increase the toxicity of environmental contaminants and increase their rate of degradation into the environment.

The impacts of climate change in the Arctic are but one facet, however, of the broader global ecological crisis that the extraction of Arctic hydrocarbons will contribute towards.  Currently environmental issues are confronting people around the planet with significant, and increasing, insecurity at the local, regional, and global levels.  According to the IPCC, the Earth has warmed by an average 0.6 degrees Celsius since 1900, and is predicted to warm at least 2 degrees further before the end of this century, resulting in widespread species extinction, biodiversity loss, desertification, rising sea levels, declining crop yields, and possible displacement of millions of people around the world.  Moreover, climate change represents only the most serious aspect of the broader ecological crisis facing the planet: three of seven global ecological boundaries (climate change, biodiversity loss, and human interference in the nitrogen cycle) have already been breached by human activity, with two others (ocean acidification and interference in the phosphorus cycle) approaching their respective estimated safe thresholds.

Seen in this light, the impacts of climate change suggest a complex web of current and emerging insecurities that represent profound short- and long-term challenges for the Arctic region and its inhabitants.  The shift from a wholly to seasonally-ice bound, and eventually ice-free, region has fundamental implications for domestic and regional Arctic politics, opportunities for economic development, the salience of traditional knowledge, and the viability of traditional ways of life.  These interrelated changes suggest a fundamental transformation of all aspects of social, political, and economic life in the region that calls into question the balance between the proposed benefits of developing the Arctic’s hydrocarbon potential and the consequences of such development.  According to the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment: “the sum of these factors threatens to overwhelm the adaptive capacity of some Arctic populations and ecosystems.  The increasingly rapid rate of recent climate change poses new challenges to the resilience of Arctic life.”  Not only does climate change constitute an immediate and long-term threat to human security and wellbeing in the Arctic, in light of the peaceful and diplomatic management of issues such as boundary disputes, it is the most pressing security issue confronting the region and its people.


The Arctic is not an island

Most Arctic states continue to pursue policies that prioritize natural resource extraction over climate change mitigation, despite the evident link between hydrocarbon resource extraction and consumption and climate change aggravation.  Petroleum giant Statoil is majority-owned by the Norwegian government, and has partnered since 2012 with Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft to facilitate expanded Arctic oil exploration.  The commitment by Russia to pursue Arctic petroleum development is evident in the heavy-handed judicial treatment of the Greenpeace Arctic 30 protestors arrested while demonstrating at an oilrig owned by Gazprom, Russia’s other state-owned oil company.  Offshore oil extraction has also been a major source of economic activity in Alaska, with the push for more oil leading to recurring calls for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve.  Beyond their Arctic regions, Norway, Russia, and the United States are all major producers, as well as per capita consumers, of hydrocarbon energy.

Yet for no circumpolar country is the contradiction between the climatic changes threatening the Arctic environment and its inhabitants and the pursuit of new hydrocarbon resources as acute as it is for Canada.  The federal Conservative government’s Arctic vision clearly places economic development, primarily non-renewable resource extraction, as its highest priority.  This vision is premised upon the acceleration of private sector industrial activity in the region, including a greater role for corporations in Arctic governance, and the need for scientific research conducted through the Arctic Council to enable the commercialization of the region.  But Canada’s commitment to hydrocarbon extraction extends far beyond the Arctic.  The bitumen sands of northern Alberta – ‘oil sands’ to advocates and ‘tar sands’ to opponents – have increasingly become the focal point of public and political concern over the impacts of climate change and the lack of meaningful action by governments to implement policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Estimates suggest that the bitumen sands possess as many as 175 billion barrels of recoverable oil, giving Canada the second largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia.  The bitumen sands have received tens of billions of dollars in investment since 2006, driving extraction to an estimated rate of 1.7 million barrels of crude oil per day.  They form the centrepiece of the Conservative vision of Canada as an ‘energy superpower’, a status the government sees the development of Arctic resources as vitally contributing towards.

But despite strong Conservative government support, popular and Indigenous backlash against a range of projects designed to facilitate expanded development of the bitumen sands – such as the controversial Keystone XL, Northern Gateway, Transmountain, and Energy East pipelines – have placed the question of extracting and transporting unconventional hydrocarbons at the fore of the national policy debate.  Opponents condemn the pipelines as “fuse[s] to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet,” and warn that “if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over” for the planet.  The contradictions of Canada’s climate policy are thus not limited to the Arctic, but amount to a simultaneous acknowledgment of the reality of climate change while rejecting meaningful reductions in Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions or regulating practices such as hydrocarbon extraction that are incompatible with such reductions.

Canada’s significance to the debate over developing hydrocarbons in the Arctic is even greater, however, because it has assumed a position of regional leadership at exactly the moment when it is signalling its intention to move away from longstanding efforts to study, preserve, and protect the fragile Arctic environment.  Since Canada began a two-year term as Chair of the Arctic Council in May 2013, it has made clear that the Council’s historical emphasis upon the environment must be made more relevant to private industry and the Canadian Government’s agenda of Arctic economic development.  One of the first actions taken by Canada was the establishment of a Circumpolar Business Forum that will allow major corporate actors a greater say in the development of Arctic resources, primarily the world’s largest oil and gas companies focused upon the extraction of Arctic hydrocarbons. In Canada’s Northern vision, the Council’s historical focus upon preserving and understanding the Arctic environment through scientific inquiry has been subordinated to the priority of using science to enable faster and greater access to the resource base in the Arctic region.

As a result, the governance regime that has emerged for the Arctic region is unlikely to play a meaningfully role in addressing the inherent tension between hydrocarbon resource extraction and maintenance of a stable Arctic environment.  Efforts focusing on environmental issues like pollution and oil spills overlook the basic fact that the hydrocarbons being extracted and shipped will be burned for energy, contributing to total atmospheric GHGs already certain to exceed the dangerous and unpredictable threshold specified by the IPCC.  Despite its origins as a leading forum for research into the physical and human impacts of Arctic environmental change, the Arctic Council is unlikely to exercise much institutional influence in moderating the human security implications of resource extraction in the region. Indeed, it seems that Canada’s resumption of the rotating chairmanship will only undermine the Council’s role in leading scientific research into the effects of Arctic climate change, and encourage expansion of the industrial and extractive processes driving those changes.  Canada, already part of the problem, is now in a key position to impede efforts at achieving a solution.  Part of that solution must involve addressing those industrial and consumptive practices occurring far from the Arctic that are implicated in generating the conditions of insecurity occurring in the Arctic region.


Arctic boom, Arctic breakdown

Environmental changes in the Arctic – anthropogenic climate change and its interaction with other forms of ecological contamination, degradation, and exhaustion – are driving complex social and physical processes that place Northern peoples and communities on the front line of global environmental insecurity.  By ignoring or downplaying the broad spectrum of ensuing security hazards, and pursuing policies such as hydrocarbon resource development that directly contribute to climate change, the governments of Canada and other Arctic states contribute to human insecurity in the region.  Though governments acknowledge the stark physical impacts of climate change upon the North, actual policies seem committed to contributing further and indefinitely to the central causes of climate change.  Despite calls for and claims of sustainable development, there is no acknowledgement of the basic incompatibility between energy-intensive forms of greenhouse gas-emitting hydrocarbon extraction, transportation, and consumption, and the maintenance of a stable and hospitable Arctic environment.

The policy path to an Arctic resource boom is thus, in actual fact, a roadmap to Arctic ecological breakdown. Arctic policies that emphasize the opportunities of climate change  while minimizing the threats that it poses are products of a pathological approach to understanding and pursuing in/security – an approach that is being adopted by Arctic states.  This approach is  rooted in the tension between transformative regional climate change  and acceleration of the economic activities that directly contribute  to that change. This pathology is rooted in the tension between transformative regional climate change and acceleration of the economic activities that directly contribute to that change.  Arctic states are embracing the economic opportunities afforded by a warming atmosphere caused by excessive greenhouse gas emissions rather than engaging in serious efforts to mitigate them.  Instead of restricting development of offshore oil and gas resources that will contribute to climate change when they are burned and would be catastrophic if accidentally released into the fragile Arctic ecosystem, Artic states emphasize regional cooperation in the case of such a spill and the reduction of industrial particulates that aggravate ice melt.  While important issues, a focus upon oil spills and black carbon is wholly inadequate to the challenge posed by climate change to the Arctic, especially insofar as it distracts from the fact that developing greater hydrocarbon extraction in the Arctic will, by definition, only help supply the global reliance upon fossil fuels that is causing the Arctic to warm uncontrollably.

In these ways, climate change in the Arctic is a powerful manifestation of the global ecological crossroads at which policymakers and humanity as a whole stand today.  The global insecurities of climate change are inherent to our contemporary “hydrocarbon society” that relies upon an economic system of “carboniferous capitalism” powered by fossil fuels.  These insecurities are increasingly evident, and are drawing greater attention from scholars and policymakers alike with each passing year, and with each failed attempt to negotiate a new global climate governance framework.  They pose profound normative and policymaking questions for democratic publics around the world, but most especially in those countries that bear historical responsibility for climate change, and which today are leading the charge for the development of greater and dirtier forms of unconventional hydrocarbon energy.  Such policies make a mockery of the idea of sustainable development in a region that is being transformed by human caused-climate change.  In the context of the Arctic, where climate change is occurring side by side with the expansion of the very processes that are causing it in the first place, the paradox is acute.  We must better acknowledge the dilemma that now confronts us in the Arctic, elsewhere in Canada, and around the world.  Truly sustainable conditions of human security depend upon it.

Also in the series


Arctic Council Warms Toward Asia

James Manicom and Whitney Lackenbauer on why the decision to grant Asian states access to the Arctic Council is the right one

Are We Ready?

Canada's North is opening up. What does that mean for search and rescue operations there?

The Weight of History in the Arctic

Shelagh Grant on why the history of the Arctic is relevant to today’s debates over the future of Arctic sovereignty.

The Military Goes North

OpenCanada talked to a DND official about how the Canadian Forces can play an important role in the Arctic.

2013: A Decisive Year for Canada's Arctic Ambitions

Rob Huebert on why this is a make-or-break year for Canada in the Arctic.

Why We Aren't Ready for an Active Arctic

The North is opening up to both economic development and tourism. But Canada and the U.S. lack the capacity to deal with this influx of activity argues Andreas Østhagen.

Neither Conflict nor “Use It or Lose It”

Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon challenges conceptions of the Arctic as a realm of contestation rather than cooperation.

Showing Leadership in the Arctic

Canada will have two years as chair of the Arctic Council to make its mark on Arctic governance, says Jennifer Welsh.