Welcome to Over the Circle (OtC), a site dedicated to news, politics and foreign policy in the Arctic region. With the ongoing changes in the circumpolar north due to climate change and ice erosion, the region has become the focus of much greater attention on a global scale, and as a result the politics of the Arctic are also undergoing rapid changes. This site will look at the politics of the ‘Arctic Eight’ (Canada, Denmark [Faroe Islands / Greenland] Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States), but also of non-Arctic states, including in Western Europe and East Asia, which are also quickly developing their own Arctic diplomacy policies.
Among the major topics in Arctic politics are economic development, environmental concerns, energy (oil and gas), shipping and new Arctic sea routes, and new and existing regional organisations, (like the Arctic Council). While there is much discussion about the opening of the Arctic, this site will examine regional and international news with an eye to examining just what this ‘opening’ really entails.
The sixth annual Arctic Circle conference will commence next week in Reykjavík, at a time when the region is yet again back in the news as a result of growing concerns about the effects on climate change and melting ice. This month has already seen a bombshell report from the United Nations which detailed the drastic changes in global weather patterns, including in the Arctic, as a result of temperature rises which could take place in as little as a dozen years from now.
There was also a paper released this week by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which tracked changes to ice in the Arctic since the late 1950s, concluding that older, multiyear ice was being steadily replaced in the far north by younger, thinner ice which could be more vulnerable to warmer summer temperatures. As with previous years, the Arctic environment, and threats to it, will likely dominate much of the dialogue at this year’s event.
Among the keynote speakers announced for the Arctic Circle this year are former Iceland President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who founded the event in 2013, as well as current Iceland Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Mr Taro Kono, Foreign Minister of Japan. Japan’s Arctic scientific interests will also be discussed at a panel organised by the Tokyo-based Arctic Challenge for Sustainability (ArCS) project. Also among the keynote speakers will be US Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Ms Ségolène Royal, France’s Arctic and Arctic Ambassador. Mr Sam Tan Chin Siong, Singapore’s Minister of State, will also hold a standalone dialogue on his country’s unique Arctic role.
China is also well-represented at this year’s conference, including the former chair of Chinese energy firm Sinopec, Mr Fu Chengyu, Mr Huigen Yang, Director of the Shanghai-based Polar Research Institute of China (中国极地研究中心), and China’s Arctic Ambassador, Mr Gao Feng. As China released its first governmental White Paper on Arctic policy in January this year, and is seeking to be accepted as a polar partner [pdf] in the region, there will also be discussion on the role of the Arctic within Beijing’s swiftly developing Belt and Road trade route networks.
The European Union, which will likely be making another bid to join the Arctic Council as a formal observer next year, will be represented by Mr Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, as well as a panel on EU scientific projects in the region. Also on the subject of the EU, Scotland, which this month called for a second referendum on the ‘Brexit’ process before its scheduled competition next year, given strong Scottish support for remaining in the Union, is also well represented at the Arctic Circle this year. The Scottish government of Premier Nicola Sturgeon has been seeking to burnish its Arctic credentials in recent years, will be represented by Ms Fiona Hyslop, Member of the Scottish Parliament and Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs.
Among the scientific areas under discussion this year are combatting pollution, (including the growing danger of contamination from plastic refuse), aquaculture, sustainable energy including wind power, space science, changes in the Arctic cryosphere, and regional green technology. Russia’s Arctic scientific prowess will be especially highlighted this year, including via a panel hosted by the Russian Academy of Sciences [In Russian] (Росси́йская акаде́мия нау́к) in St Petersburg.
Beyond hard science, there will be panels on indigenous affairs, gender studies, law, the future of the Arctic Council, and political cooperation. As with previous conferences, the economic potential of the Arctic will also be showcased, including in the areas of fossil fuels, shipping, alternative energy, and data infrastructure. There will also be events related to arts and culture as well as journalism and research practices, so this year’s conference is shaping up to take an even more holistic approach to the Arctic.
OtC, in addition to being represented on a panel about Arctic identity-building, will also be featuring reports from the Arctic Circle over the next week.
Although evidence of the cumulative effects of climate change, including in the Arctic, has been appearing for decades now, a new study [pdf] by international specialists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), under the aegis of the United Nations World Meteorological Association (WMO) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released in Incheon, South Korea, this week suggests that the planet has less than two decades to ensure that global temperatures do not rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Without drastic actions, including higher carbon taxes, the paper argued, the negative effects on weather patterns could lead to draughts, food shortages and rises in poverty levels by 2030. The Arctic Ocean, which this week recorded its minimum ice extent for the year, (tying with 2008 and 2010 for the sixth-lowest minimum levels in forty years), was included in the report as a region which would be especially susceptible to climate change trends. For example, it was noted that sudden sea level rises could be triggered by the rapid disintegration of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets.
The UN report concluded that net emissions of carbon dioxide on a global scale would need to be reduced forty percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and ideally reach a ‘net zero’ stage by about the middle of this century to keep warming levels under the 1.5ºC threshold. However, these results would require a considerable number of economic and political commitments. Rises in carbon dioxide emission taxes, with the report suggesting that by 2030 the range would need to be between US$135 to $5500 per ton of CO2 emissions, would be a hard sell in many countries, including the United States.
The Trump administration has made little secret of its disdain for anti-global warming policies and its support for US fossil fuel and coal industries, and is in the process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change which may take place by 2020. Another large state, Brazil, may also withdraw from the accord should far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro win the runoff vote scheduled in late October and follow through on his promise to leave the agreement.
The Arctic as a whole, as well as specific sub-regions, were cited not only as areas of specific risk of environmental damage caused by climate change but also parts of the world which would specifically benefit from international attempts to keep global temperature levels below the 1.5ºC limit. The Arctic was noted as experiencing warming trends two to three times greater than the international average.
However, the document suggested that the possibility of a completely ice-free Arctic in the summer months drops substantially with a 1.5 degree maximum limit. Specifically, the findings suggested that the Arctic Ocean would be free of sea ice in summer only once per century if the lower target was achieved, as opposed to potentially once per decade if a two-degree threshold was maintained.
As well, the instability of the Greenland Ice Sheet would also become more pronounced within a scenario of a two-degree jump in global temperatures. The potential damage to the Arctic’s ecosystems, as well as to the livelihoods of indigenous populations in the region, were also discussed in the study.
One early conclusion in the wake of the IPCC report’s release is that the Arctic cannot be seen as a peripheral region, or one disconnected from other parts of the world, as the effects of climate change become more glaringly apparent.
A new article (in Finnish) by Marc Lanteigne, editor of the OtC blog, has been published in the online journal Ulkopolitiikka (Foreign Policy) on the subject of China’s expanded Arctic diplomacy. Since China became a formal observer in the Arctic Council in 2013, its interests in the far north are being seen in numerous parts of the region, ranging from the Russian Far East to Greenland.
This week, the ongoing story about the planned expansion of three airports in Greenland, including the facilities in the capital of Nuuk, saw another twist after the United States Department of Defence (DoD) released a single page statement of intent confirming American interest in potential investment in Greenlandic infrastructure with an eye to improving US and Greenlandic security interests.
The statement, signed by US Undersecretary of Defence for Policy (USDP) John Rood at the American air base at Thule in far-northern Greenland, stated that Washington would weigh the possibilities of ‘strategic investments’, including those which may serve ‘dual military and civilian purposes’. These potential projects, it was added, would serve to improve both American and NATO capabilities in the region and be to the benefit of the United States, Denmark, and ‘the people of Greenland’.
The US Embassy in Copenhagen released the statement via its Twitter feed, and there was a swift positive response by the Danish Foreign Ministry which praised [In Danish] the US statement as creating ‘very interesting potential for future cooperation’. The Danish Foreign Ministry remarks included a statement by Vivian Motzfeldt, the Greenlandic Minister for Education, Culture, Church and Foreign Affairs, saying [In Danish] that the US declaration was welcome and expressing hopes for future US investment in Greenland’s airports. Danish Foreign Affairs Minister Anders Samuelsen was also supportive, saying that stronger US-Denmark defence cooperation in Greenland would contribute to the region remaining a ‘low tension area’.
The emerging US investment offer comes right on the heels of an agreement struck in Nuuk between Greenland’s Prime Minister, Kim Kielsen, and Danish PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen to allow for Danish financial support for the expansion of the three airports, including runway lengthening, at Nuuk along with the facilities at Ilulissat and Qaqortoq. Said agreement appeared to be designed to waylay a bid by a Chinese concern, namely the China Communications Construction Company (Zhongguo jiaotong jianshe youxiangongsi 中国交通建设有限公司) or CCCC, to invest in the airport refurbishments.
However, the Denmark-Greenland deal was denigrated by one of the coalition partners, Partii Naleraq [In Danish/Greenlandic] which announced that it was no longer supporting the Kielsen government, leaving the coalition short of a majority in the Greenlandic parliament. Thus far, an alternative coalition partner has yet to be confirmed, leading to questions about how long the current administration will be able to remain in office without another election being called.
Danish government representatives had long been troubled about the strategic ramifications of large-scale Chinese investment in Greenland, and the addition of an American offer would also seem to suggest that Washington is also increasingly concerned about the expansion of Beijing’s ‘Belt and Road’ trade interests into the Arctic. Sino-American relations have been on a steady downward trajectory since the Trump administration began, marred by an escalating dispute on bilateral trade which reached a new nadir this week with the US announcement of additional tariffs on Chinese goods worth a reported US$200 billion.
Greenland, including the Thule base, is a vital strategic area for the US security interests given growing concerns about Russian militarisation in the Arctic, including in the Nordic region. In next-door Iceland, the US military has returned to the old base facilities at Keflavík, with plans to use them as a launch point for submarine-tracking aircraft, after withdrawing from the country in 2006.
While the Danish, and now the potential American, offers of financial support for the Greenland airports can be seen as a setback for Chinese commercial interests in the region, However, the final status of the projects is far from settled, given the precarious status of Greenland’s minority government, the specifics of any future foreign investment in airport infrastructure, and the fact that China has many other actual and potential policy avenues to Greenland, as well as the greater Arctic region.
As a recent article in the online journal Cryopoliticsexplained, Beijing has investment interests in numerous other parts of the Arctic, including mining in Greenland and oil and gas projects in Russia as well as natural gas investment in Alaska. The unsuccessful bid by the CCCC may simply be a small bump in China’s widening ‘Ice Silk Road’.
As well, the US statement of intent was very short on specifics regarding both the investment amounts, (and types), as well as the timeframe. It was also stressed that the statement was not legally binding ‘under international or national law’. Caution therefore may be warranted about the particulars of the US statement, given the very ambiguous status of current US Arctic policy under President Donald Trump, as evidenced by no specific Arctic policy statements being made since his administration began, as well as other Arctic related projects, such as new American icebreakers for the country’s Coast Guard, at considerable risk of being buried in red tape. What can be said, however, is that US interest in further Greenland investment is another sign of the growing profile of the island in both Arctic and international affairs.