2020 Vision: Upcoming Challenges in the Arctic

Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, shakes hands with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez at the COP25 environmental conference in Madrid [Photo via the The UN Climate Change Conference COP 25]
by Marc Lanteigne

The Arctic continued to be a focus of global attention over the past year, although not always for the best reasons, and the coming year, and decade, is certain to produce new environmental and political challenges for the region. The two largest of these will likely be ongoing questions about the effects of climate change in the far north and global responses, (or lack thereof), and the development of ‘hard security’ concerns in the Arctic as that region continues to be viewed as a developing economic, and strategic, asset.

The most recent United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25) took place earlier this month in Madrid, an event which was widely seen as a watershed moment in the ongoing campaign to address the deterioration of the environment, including in the Polar Regions. Despite an additional two days of talks, the COP25 meetings were widely seen as falling short of expected goals, especially in regards to setting specific rules and guidelines to cutting carbon emissions. Not helping the situation is the presence of major governments, including those of the United States, Brazil and Australia, which are unapologetic climate change deniers despite no shortage of recent evidence.

In the Arctic, according to the November 2019 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the extent of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean was the second smallest on record (after 2012), with the Arctic bearing the brunt of general global warming trends. Several parts of the Arctic experienced unusual high temperatures, including in Iceland, Svalbard and Alaska, while warnings about the environmental situation in Greenland continue to appear.

A study published on 10 December by the journal Nature concluded that the Greenland Ice Sheet has been losing mass at a greater rate than what was originally predicted, while other statistics noted that a lower-than-average snow cover and a warm summer had contributed to significant ice losses in Greenland during 2019.

Summer forest fires, aided by the advance of the tree line northward as well as warming temperatures, were also omnipresent this year, including in much of Siberia. As well, research undertaken by the vessel RV Polarstern, housing the MOSAiC project, a multinational set of scientific studies in the Arctic Ocean, have pointed to higher-then-anticipated levels of dust and particulates in the area emanating from Russia and North America. Those pushing for more concrete actions on curbing climate emissions have pointed to these events as proof that greater urgency is needed. Meanwhile, climate change protests, despite having a long history, arguably only truly moved to the forefront this year.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was named as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2019.

The second major Arctic trend in 2019 has been the ‘return’, (assuming they ever truly left), of security concerns in the region as a result of increased Russian military activity in its Arctic lands, strategic responses by the United States and its NATO allies, and growing interest in Arctic security by non-Arctic states, with China seen as leading that trend but far from bring the only country involved in the process.

The question of how to interpret Russia’s strategic plans in the Arctic greatly depends on where one sits. Moscow has framed these policies as necessary defensive moves in order to protect Arctic economic assets, including emerging sea lanes like the Northern Sea Route which may become secondary outlets for maritime trade in the coming decades, as well as to address previous governmental neglect of the region in the years after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

At present, the ‘Polar Silk Road’, which Russia, along with China, has advertised as being a new economic corridor in global trade, largely remains on the drawing board. Yet the stage is still being set for developing Sino-Russian partnerships in the Arctic on many fronts, including energy. Critics of Russian Arctic policy, however, have stressed the risks of expanded assertive military behaviour, especially in the Atlantic-Arctic, which have placed strains on NATO in the region as well as non-NATO frontline states Finland and Sweden.

2019 also saw a return, of sorts, of US Arctic policy after at least two years of the region being almost completely off of Washington’s metaphorical radar. However, the methods by which the current US government was seeking to refine its presence in the Arctic generated much controversy, and at times concern.

Floor mosaic of the Arctic Ocean at Polaria, Tromsø [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s polarising speech at the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting last May in Rovaniemi illustrated a haphazard attempt on the American government’s part to denigrate and push aside concerns about Arctic climate change in favour of pointing great power rivalry as the ‘real’ main security threat in the region. This attempt to ‘change the narrative’, as well as American reticence on mention of climate change which contributed to the Arctic Council failing to produce a formal declaration for the first time after a biennial ministerial meeting, provided further insights into changed US thinking in the region. The question now is whether these events are simply a blip in the evolution of multilateral Arctic policies, or if there will be an even wider split to come between the United States and its seven partner countries in the Arctic Council.

In light of the events of the Rovaniemi meeting, worries are now being expressed about whether the Council has been weakened as a regional administrative body, with one recent commentary even asking whether overall Arctic governance is entering a new stage as a result of the events of the past few years.

RV Polarstern with a green lidar beam during the MOSAiC expedition in the Central Arctic [Photo by Ronny Engelmann, TROPOS]
The current incoherence of US Arctic policy was also demonstrated by policy papers this year which also sought to downplay climate change threats in favour of guarding against great power rivalries involving Russia and China. As well, the speech by US Energy Secretary Rick Perry at this year’s Arctic Circle conference in October attempted to spin [video] the policy situation in the Arctic even further off kilter by hyping the emerging prospects of regional oil development, while again failing to mention the climate change factor. Both Mr Pompeo and Mr Perry have since been ensnared in the same developing Ukraine scandal which led to the impeachment of the US President this month, and it remains to be seen how these events, as well as the upcoming November elections, will affect American Arctic policy in the coming year.

Finally, the surfacing of reports in mid-2019 that the United States government was interested in purchasing Greenland from Denmark, despite the legal status of Greenland preventing this scenario, was not only another demonstration of the often-myopic and transactional nature of current US international relations, but also another signal that Washington was beginning to view the overall region as a zero-sum game. Nonetheless, the United States is still seeking to bolster relations with Greenland, including out of concerns about Chinese economic diplomacy there. A new American consulate in Nuuk is on track to open early in 2020, and it is possible that Greenland may be a focus of more visible Sino-American diplomatic rivalry.

Other facets of Arctic policy also experienced much change in the past year. Research in the region experienced highs and lows in recent months, including on one side the opening, scheduled for 8 May next year, of Yukon University, Canada’s first Arctic university in Whitehorse. On the other, the University of Alaska system is attempting to recover from financial crises earlier this year, as well as differences over restructuring plans, adding to concerns about the future role of the United States in Arctic research.

Elsewhere in the Arctic, joint far northern research between China and Russia is beginning to take shape, including in the form of a China-Russia Arctic Research Centre, which was confirmed in August of this year. Svalbard may also be emerging as a source of contention between politics and research, as Norway and Russia have occasionally bumped into each other over regulations on fishing and environmental protocols, and there have also been recent differences of opinion [In Norwegian] between Oslo and Beijing on proper research protocols on Svalbard.

Clear skies or clouds ahead? [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
January 2020 will see the opening of the annual Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, with a promised focus on knowledge sharing, including the scientific realms, as well as a greater emphasis on youth engagement. Later next year, the next Arctic Circle breakout forum is expected to take place in Japan.

On the governmental level, the Chair of the Arctic Council continues to be held by Iceland, and will be transferred to Russia in early 2021, with the organisation adding to its own research agenda by agreeing earlier this month to set up a new expert group [pdf] on regional radiation issues via the Council’s Working Group on Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response. Many of these announcements have further served to illustrate the blurry lines between Arctic policy and greater international affairs, including in matters of civil and military security but also in areas of governance.

Over the Circle will be covering these events and others, as well as other news appearing in the Arctic, as 2020 unfolds. Until then, a happy and prosperous New Year to everyone!