The geopolitics of climate change in the Arctic

19 June 2023


The geopolitics of climate change in the Arctic

Reported by Patrick McAlary, Policy Research Assistant, Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge

Marie-Anne Coninsx, the first EU Ambassador for the Artic and Honorary Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, met with the Cambridge Zero Policy Forum, to discuss the geopolitics of climate change in the Arctic.
Institutional mechanisms for regional and international co-operation

The Arctic is the most northern region in the world, which is undergoing dramatic changes. In particular, the warming up of the Arctic is impacting the region, its inhabitants and ecosystems. But it also has global impacts, contributing to the rise of temperatures worldwide, to the increase of extreme weather patterns and the rise of sea-levels due to the melting of Arctic land-ice. More recently, the Arctic is being impacted by geopolitical turbulences, especially the Russian war in Ukraine, raising concerns about the security and stability of the Arctic region itself.

The main, but not exclusive, body of Arctic governance, is the Arctic Council. The Council is primarily made up of the eight Arctic states and representatives of the Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic, but it also hosts Observers, as non-Arctic states and organisations can be granted observer status. The Arctic Council’s ability to function well has been strained by geopolitical tensions. Russia has only recently relinquished the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which it held between 2021 and 2023. However, when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, this prompted the other Arctic states to pause the work of the Arctic Council, resuming only limited co-operation without Russian involvement. Meanwhile, Russia is forging links with other countries, non-Arctic states that are increasingly interested in the Arctic, such as China (calling itself “a near Arctic state”) and India.

Another issue is that the Arctic Council is, for all intents and purposes, is primarily a closed club. Non-Arctic states and organisations can have observer status but they have no say at the Council table; they are only allowed to be active at the level of the Working Groups of the Arctic Council, including to fund the Council’s projects. Some participants suggest that the Council should become more open and inclusive, to promote greater engagement and co-operation on research and issues related to the Arctic, which should be beneficial to all.

Voices of Indigenous Peoples

An important aspect of the Arctic Council is the prominence given to the five organisations representing Indigenous Peoples. Inclusion of such voices provides a basis for collaboration and a just transition, but there are also tensions where the concerns and interests of indigenous communities do not align with sustainability initiatives and may run counter to them. Acknowledging historical contexts, providing space for indigenous voices, and allowing them to be part of decision -making on issues that directly concern them, is key to navigating the tensions between the Arctic’s local and global contexts.

Economic opportunities and sustainability

The Arctic is warming at a faster rate than other parts of the planet and this poses a range of challenges to the region itself (such as the thawing of permafrost, threatening Arctic infrastructure built upon it) and across the world. However, it also creates a space for economic opportunities that could benefit various important economic sectors, such as energy, mining and shipping. Indeed, the Arctic is rich in oil, gas, and mineral resources, while melting ice is making sea routes more accessible, which provides potential opportunities for shipping and fishing.

The Arctic's enormous potential in renewable energy and critical minerals also makes it crucial for the green transition. The Arctic has become a hotspot of green innovation technologies. However, given the extreme fragility of the Arctic environment, how far should economic development in the Arctic be restrained in pursuit of sustainability and how can such development be conducted in a responsible manner? The importance of red lines - imposing the highest possible standards for the exploration of natural resources, and the use of green technological innovations (such as moves towards ‘Green Steel’ in Sweden) together with the use of renewable energy, will play a part in ensuring a balance between the need for sustainable economic development in the Arctic, and the need for protection of its fragile environment, as well as the respect of the rights of the Indigenous Peoples.

Constraints on Arctic research

We all have an interest in understanding the dramatic developments in the Arctic, in order to address the major challenges the region is facing, such as climate change and the need for sustainability. This implies, among others, strong international scientific cooperation. However, the geopolitical tensions that have paused the operations of the Arctic Council, have also made research more difficult. The breakdown of collaboration with Russia as a result of the Ukraine war means that it has become much more difficult to gain access to research data conducted in the Russian Arctic, which covers the largest part of the Arctic region. Also, it affects international scientific cooperation involving Russian researchers. This may have negative impacts upon research for the foreseeable future, and scientists will have to adapt. However, the positive side is that this has strengthened Arctic scientific cooperation among “the willing”, the 7 other Arctic states and several non-Arctic states, which are very strong in conducting Arctic research. Moreover, modern technology, facilitated for example by sophisticated satellite systems, helps to overcome some gaps in the data or the collateral damage to scientific collaboration, caused by the Russian war in Ukraine.

Takeaway messages

The Arctic is a critical region of increasingly strategic importance, for the Arctic states, the people living in the Arctic, and also for the world at large. It has become the nexus of many converging but also competing interests. Its increasing geoeconomic importance, linked with geopolitical and climactic shifts, makes it an imperative to better understand the region and its developments. It is important to acknowledge that the Arctic is not simply a world of melting ice caps and desolate looking polar bears, but also the home of more than 4 million people, that are impacted by such shifts: there is a lot to gain but also to lose. Any ‘unlocking’ of Arctic resources needs to be done responsibly, and a balance needs to be struck between actors inside and outside the Arctic world itself. Hence, we should be interested in this region, as it affects us all. The Arctic is both local and global.

Image by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen - Unsplash

Patrick McAlary

Institute for Government (IfG)