The warming Arctic, a hyper strategic crisis

January 22, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedAdapting a famous battle between the Teutonic knights and the Russian army during the thirteenth century in his 1938 movie, “Alexandre Nevski”, Sergei Eisenstein directs one of the most famous war scene in the movie’s history: he shows the terrible armoured Teutonic Knights charging the Russian ragtag army over a frozen lake. However, such is the weight of the Knights’ armours, that, after some fights, the ice of Lake Peipous breaks up and all the Knights drown, giving the victory to the Russians.

This could be a metaphor for what might happen in the Arctic during the decades to come, with an important nuance: there might be no winner in the end.

Because of climate change, the Arctic is warming and melting. This new environmental status attracts the attention and strategies of the Russian, Chinese, U.S. and others governments, as well as those of energy, mining and fishing companies (Klare, The Race for What’s Left, 2012). However, basically, this new geophysical situation is triggering what is the mother of all strategic crisis: the long planetary hyper strategic crisis.

The rapid and expanding melting of the summer ice cap and the warming of the Arctic Sea and surrounding land turns the region into a new attractor, given the huge reserves in oil, gas and other geological resources (Barents Observer, “Huge mineral resources on Norwegian shelf“, December 17, 2013), which could actually be exploited.

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As we saw previously, Russia and China are particularly active, militarizing the region, developing scientific, economic, technological and infrastructural projects, multiplying partnerships with Arctic states, like Norway and Greenland (Foreign Affairs, Iceland’s Saga, A Conversation With Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, January/February 2014 issue). Old and “new” Arctic countries, such as Canada, the U.S.A., Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, but also South Korea, and Italy, among others, are working on the development of new projects such as new Arctic railroads, icebreakers, submarines, new shipping roads, among many others (Barents Observer, August 06 2013).

The harsh realities of geophysics

However, this raises a major question: are these “Arctic grand strategies” not threatened by the new environmental situation of the Arctic, even if that very change is precisely the reason for their existence and development? Arctic warming might be the environmental global change moment of the “paradoxical logic of strategy” (Edward Luttwak, Strategy: the logic of war and peace, 1987), when strategies designed to successfully attain a certain set of goals are turning into strategies leading to failure.

The interaction between the Arctic and global warming is something new in human strategic history, because it turns the meeting of geography and geophysics in this region into a new, strange power of geophysical nature, which we shall name here the “Arctic environmental power”, which exercises itself on a planetary scale, with massive consequences.

Image RemovedIt is so, because, unlike Las Vegas, “what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic” (Jane Lubchenko, Climate progress, July 24, 2013). The Arctic is one of the main drivers of the Earth’s climate, given the complex interactions between ocean currents, seawater, sea ice, and solar radiations. The Arctic ice field is like a giant mirror, sending back solar radiations in space. However, the more the summer ice melts, the more the sea warms, the more the ice melts, in a self-sustaining feedback loop (James Hansen, in Subankar Banerjee, Arctic Voices, 2013). The ongoing consequence of this process is that the whole planetary system atmosphere-ocean accumulates more and more energy, and thus adopts a new global behavior.

“Superior firepower”, deadly interactions

This new climate-ocean condition interacts with economic, infrastructural, political, and societal vulnerabilities, through the multiplication of extreme weather events, such as droughts, storms, floods, wildfires, heat-waves, etc. (Joe Romm, Climate progress, December 9, 2013). Furthermore, this happens at a moment of global demographic and urban explosion.

These dangerous interactions are already felt in the Arctic, because of its new attractiveness.

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The Arctic is both a very fragile and an extremely harsh regional environment, which is going to be extremely difficult and costly to exploit. For example, on 17 September 2012, Shell announced it postponed its Arctic offshore drilling project, because of a failure of the oil containment rig and because of the presence of a massive sea ice pack over the intended site, which delayed the operation (Climate Progress, “Shell Postpones Arctic Offshore Drilling For The Year Due To Technical Problems, And Rough Ice Conditions“, September 19, 2012). This was adding more delays, costs and difficulties to a project that had already known many.

So, one could say that the “Arctic environmental power” overwhelmed the technical and financial capabilities of the Shell company, disrupting its strategy.

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Moreover, the “Deepwater Horizon” catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, has led Alaskan communities and authorities to get very worried about what would happen in case of an oil spill since the dramatic Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, given that there are very few intervention capabilities infrastructures, or regional experience of catastrophe management (Subankhar Banerjee, ibid).

The risks and costs are so high, not only for the energy industry, but also for the insurance industry and thus, for the banking industry, that, in 2012 Lloyd’s published (with Chatham House) the report Arctic opening: opportunity and risk in the High North, which led the German bank WestLB to stop investing in Arctic drilling.

However, as deeply important as these issues are, the “Arctic environmental power” is even more far-reaching than that.

The Warming Arctic as a “rogue hyper power”

Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Arctic icepack is rapidly decreasing in mass and volume during summer. Meanwhile, the Polar jet stream, the west/east air current defining the limit between Arctic and non-Arctic part of the atmosphere, is deeply altered and humidity charged, which appears more and more clearly to be linked to the growth of extreme weather events around the globe over the last few years (Joe Romm, Study: Arctic Sea Ice Loss Shifts Jet Stream, Driving Deluges In NW Europe, Drought In Mediterranean, October 30, 2013).

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For example, recent studies link Arctic climate change to the series of Russian and North American heat waves since 2010, as well as to the massive flooding in Pakistan in 2010, and to the long and dangerous drought over the Amazonian basin, among others (Dr James Marsters, 2010-2011: Earth worst extreme weather since 1816?, 2011).

These events are the equivalent of powerful and repeated “environmental global strikes”, which exert an enormous strategic pressure not only on the stricken areas, but also on globalization. For example, the 2010 Russian heat wave affected the Russian harvest of cereals, prompting the Kremlin to decide not to sell it on the international market. It triggered a brutal increase of the global price of cereals, and resulted in food riots in numerous cities in poor countries (Klare, The Coming global explosion, 2013).

And the stakes are still getting higher. The melting of the Siberian and Alaskan permafrost and the warming of the ocean are starting to liberate plumes of methane, a greenhouse gas several times more powerful than carbon dioxide, especially around the Bering Strait. If this becomes a significant trend, it will severely amplify global warming (Alan Buis, Is a sleeping climate giant stirring up in the Arctic?, NASA, June 10, 2013).

A collision of timelines

There is a badly understood political and strategic reality about global warming, including in its Arctic form: from a generational point of view, it will never cease intensifying and amplifying. It is going to be ever more powerful, unless global levels of CO2 are made to significantly decrease (James Hansen, Storms of my grand children, 2009).

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This is the reason why a recent study, published in Nature, estimates that, in twenty to thirty years,

“The release of methane from thawing permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea, off northern Russia, alone comes with an average global price tag of $60 trillion [my emphasis] in the absence of mitigating action — a figure comparable to the size of the world economy in 2012 (about $70 trillion). The total cost of Arctic change will be much higher.
… The extra methane magnifies flooding of low-lying areas, extreme heat stress, droughts and storms.” Whiteman, Hopes and Wadhams, “Climate science: vast costs of climate“, Nature, 2013.

This cost-analysis of Arctic warming goes with an estimate of the costs induced by the international industrial development of the Arctic during the next twenty years, which could be around one hundred billion dollars (Whiteman, ibid). These huge investments will be put in danger by the continuous destabilization of the Arctic environment, while the international system will have to absorb immense disaster-induced costs.

Thus, the current unleashing of the Arctic environmental power raises a (very) tough question: how can we develop efficient strategies in a world of perpetual and hostile change?

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The problem is that, if we “simply” take a look at the Iraqi “three trillion dollar war”, we can see that these immense economic costs have wreaked ghastly damages on the American society and on the national and the world economy, as well as on international strategic equilibrium (Stiglitz and Bilmes, The three trillion dollar war, 2008).

It implies that the “sixty trillion dollar” cost of the globalization of a permanent “state of disaster” brought about by climate change could imply a new “environmental and geo-economic” definition of risk and security, at a planetary scale, while the climate economic black hole would absorb governmental and private financial resources.

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During the twentieth century, some regions have known short periods of “semi-collapse”. Russia faced such a situation during the 1990s, when the Russian average life expectancy was reduced by ten years, in ten years (Dmitri Orlov, Reinventing collapse, 2008). The US Midwest also went through a “risk of collapse” period when it faced both the Great depression and the giant Dust Bowl during the 1930s. More than 2.5 million people were forced to leave their home and migrate. 70.000 thousand died of dust-pneumonia (Kennedy, Freedom from fear, 2001).

In other words, Arctic warming is the strategic equivalent of an undeclared and permanent global geo-economic and geophysical war on globalization and nations, through the multiplication of extreme weather events and ocean acidification, and their combined cascades of social, economic and political effects.

Such situations are already occurring, at different levels and under various forms, in Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Iraq, Bangladesh, as well as in Australia, Russia, and the United States, among others (Craig Childs, Apocalyptic planet, 2012).

What happens in the poorest of these countries, for example in Somalia, shows that people and authorities do not accept collapse, and decide to fight to survive.

A window on the world to come?

Given the current factors at work, it would be easy to project a future dominated by the combination of the “Arctic environmental power” and the structural vulnerabilities of the nations of the world and of globalization.

Yet, if changing environmental conditions can trigger the current Arctic strategies, then the same political and strategic capabilities will most probably not stay idle and will be put to use in efforts towards both adaptation and mitigation.

So, it could be said that the emergence of the “Arctic environmental power” announces a powerful return of political power, certainly in new forms.

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Dr. Jean-Michel Valantin

Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy. He is the author of "Menace climatique sur l’ordre mondial" (Climatic threat on the world order), "Ecologie et gouvernance mondiale" (Ecology and world governance), "Guerre et Nature, l’Amérique prépare la guerre du climat, "(War and nature: America gets ready for climate war) and of "Hollywood, the Pentagon and Washington".

Tags: climate change, environmental threats, globalization