THIS week scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Centre gave warning that Arctic sea ice has receded to its second-smallest area since satellite records began in 1979. The rate of shrinkage this year is the fastest ever and, with around a month still left of summer, the current ice coverage of 5.3m square km could fall to less than the record low seen last September of 4.1m square km. This is bad news for the environment: Arctic ice reflects sunlight, keeping the region cool, and polar bear populations are predicted to fall by a third over the next 50 years as the creatures’ habitat disappears.
“Climate Change: Of ice and men,” The Economist, 29 August, 2008.
This also means that serious geopolitical competition for the resources beneath the ice is ever more likely. As the ice melts, energy exploration and new travel routes make the region’s territorial and maritime boundaries ever more relevant in world affairs.
I want to hear the candidates’ position on Artic exploitation, in all senses (not just from the vantage point of energy). Surely, McCain the AntiRussian and his gorgeous running-mate Sarah Palin, from the land of polar bears, have an opinion (he has cast himself as old enough to have an opinion on everything; despite her near total isolation from foreign policy, Palin is governor of the US state closest to Russia, with one of the longest land borders with Canada and massive energy and mineral deposits, and surely (or hopefully) can provide insight on the topic). Given his Russophobia, I am surprised he has not referenced Russia’s advance to the top of the world (they planted their flag at the seabed of the North Pole last summer) in his grumblings about that country’s naughty maneuvers. He might even use Canada and Denmark’s squabbles over small bits of land in the Arctic as more evidence of how the world is more and more “dangerous.” Obama could use it as evidence as to why America needs to work more vigorously towards energy independence.
My sense, though, is that the Arctic is so far removed from the hot button (and to a degree far more important) foreign policy issues of the day (aside from climate change) that the candidates are either unaware of the jockeying for position going on among the Arctic rim states (Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway especially) or don’t see it as particularly relevant to voters. How many Americans remember the sub-Arctic Cod Wars? Potential disputes between Canada and Denmark probably don’t interest many Americans. Ones between Russia and Canada or Russia and Norway should. Both Canada and Norway are NATO members, and Canada is of course an important ally of the United States and its closest and most extensive neighbor. Additionally, a map that came out earlier this month shows potential areas of dispute over areas of economic activity in the Arctic region beyond the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zones claimed by most states concerned. US also has large established and potential Arctic claims, bordering on Russia’s claims. It’s an issue that should be of concern to America.
How aggressively engaged should the United States be in the Arctic and to what extent to should the US embrace extensions of rim states’ EEZz beyond the tradition 200 mi. limit based on their continental shelves? This could put Russia at a massive advantage over other, friendlier, states when it comes to energy exploration and exploitation. Too much exploration could have negative environmental consequences. Lack of consensus on boundaries, in the worst case, could lead to belligerent postures, terrible international incidents or even war.