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global warming

Will Putin become the Arctic Boss?

Geostrategy of the Arctic’s Chokepoints

 As the Polar ice cap melts, new shipping lanes are opening across the Arctic. Navigation in the area is still in its initial stages, but in the long term it has the potential to transform international maritime trade and to profoundly affect the geopolitical scene. In particular, if this happens, new chokepoints will take a central strategic importance: the Bering Strait and the North Atlantic passages.

The four Arctic routes

The idea of reaching the Pacific Ocean by navigating through the Arctic is not new. centuries ago, explorers risked their lives to find the fabled Northwest Passage. It sails north of Canada and then crosses the Bering Strait to arrive in the Pacific, and it is the first of the possible Arctic Routes. The second one is the Northern Sea Route, or NSR, which is the most debated today. Starting from the Pacific Ocean, it passes through Bering and proceeds along Russia’s northern coasts towards Europe. Then, there are two other options: the least important is the Arctic Bridge, which connects Northern Europe with Canada; the other is the Transpolar Sea Route, that crosses the centre of the Arctic Ocean instead of passing along the coasts like the NSR does. While this is theoretically possible, in practice this area is still covered in ice and therefore it will become navigable only if the Polar cap disappears almost completely.

For centuries, the Arctic ice cap made it impossible to sail across these frozen waters during most of the year, but things are different today. Global warming is dissolving the Arctic’s ice, and this is opening these passages to navigation for increasingly long periods. As a result, the NSR and the Northwest Passage are becoming commercially viable, something this could radically change the world’s maritime trade patterns. The reason is that such lanes are way shorter, and therefore time- and money-saving, than the traditional ones passing through the Pacific and Indian Oceans. This is why more and more ships are already using these lanes and the NSR in particular, even though the trade volume remains only a tiny fraction of the one flowing along the ordinary seaways. But apart from merely economic considerations, Arctic lanes present other geostrategic advantages for the various powers that are interested in their development.

Why the Arctic?

The first country that wants to develop the NSR and Arctic trade in general is Russia. As a matter of fact, Russia is the region’s prominent power: first, because most of the coast around the Arctic belongs to it, and then because of its unrivalled fleet of ice-breakers and of the military forces it has deployed there. Moscow considers the NSR as an excellent opportunity to develop its northernmost territories and ports by providing logistic support to the ships sailing across these waters. Moreover, the Arctic also hosts large oil and gas reserves, which would further strengthen Russia’s stance as a world-class energy supplier. Of course, such projects are technically challenging due to the rigid climate and they require huge investments to develop the necessary infrastructure, but Russia is already working on it; and most importantly it can cooperate with other powers that want to open such routes and access the Arctic’s resources.

As a matter of fact, many Asian countries are also interested in the Arctic. Among them, the most important is certainly China, who is already operating in the region. There are three reasons behind its interest. First, gaining access alternative hydrocarbon sources and reduce its reliance on the Middle East. Second, opening a faster and cheaper shipping lane to Europe and to America’s East coast. The third reason is geostrategic, and it is closely related to the others. Beijing is engaged in a great power competition with Washington, and the traditional southern routes it currently uses for trade with Europe could easily be cut by the US Navy in case of war; something that would compromise its economy and its energy security. Chokepoints like the straits of Malacca, Hormuz, Bab el-Mandeb and Suez are particularly vulnerable.

Similar considerations are at the base of Japan’s and South Korea’s presence in the Arctic. However, in their case the security dimension is different: they fear that China, or a Sino-American war, may disrupt trade along the traditional routes; and because of this they want to open the alternative seaway to Europe.

But will the NSR actually solve their strategic problem?

The new chokepoints: Bering and the North Atlantic

The traditional shipping lanes are effectively exposed to threats. The US can easily block them, but China and other powers also have some capacity in this regard. In addition, piracy can also be a problem. So, China and other Asian countries consider the Arctic routes as a safer alternative. However, they also have their narrow passages, which will assume a great strategic importance if Arctic trade develops.

The first and most important one is the Bering Strait, and 82-kilometres wide channel that divides Siberia and Alaska. It is the only connection between the Pacific and the Arctic, making of it the prominent strategic passage for Polar trade. In other words, who controls Bering also controls the shipping flow across the Arctic. Now, this power can be either Russia or the US. But for them, the Strait is not only important due to trade: it is also a matter of national security. For Russia, it is the only point where it can directly attack the US territory with ease short of using ballistic missiles. Due to the presence of a developed oil industry, hitting Alaska would allow Russia to damage America’s economy and to create a useful diversion. This eventuality, in turn, means that the area takes a significant military importance for Washington as well. Additionally, if Arctic trade develops, blocking the Bering Strait would allow the US to damage both China and Russia, its two main competitors. It is therefore not surprising that both America and Russia have military bases and perform manoeuvers around Bering, whose militarization is expected to continue as long as more and more ships travel through the Arctic. It is likely that both sides will deploy Anti-Access / Area Denial assets along its coasts as a mean to ensure their control over it by impeding the enemy forces to operate.

As far as China is concerned, Bering will also take a major strategic importance. But while its naval build-up will allow it to deploy its Navy in the area, China will have to rely on Russia to ensure that the Strait remains open. This implies that its access to the Arctic could be seriously hampered in case its relations with Moscow deteriorated, which is a possibility that should not be excluded in the long term due to a series of possible contrasts that may emerge. Moreover, from Beijing’s perspective Bering is not even the first chokepoint to be crossed to reach the Arctic: before, its ships need to pass either through the Korea Strait or the La Pérouse Strait. The former divides Korea and Japan, while the latter separates the Japanese island of Hokkaidō from Russia’s Sakhalin. Both are extremely vulnerable, since the US or even Japan may easily block them and deny China its access to the Arctic.

The second susceptible area is located at the other end of the NSR. It is not a single strait; rather, it is a group of maritime zones that connect the Arctic with the Atlantic. Each of them is sensibly wider than Bering, but they are narrow enough to allow a great military power like the US to mount a blockade capable of disrupting the regularity of trade flows; especially considering the performance of modern missiles and aircraft. Among these areas, the most famous and relevant is certainly the GIUK Gap, which takes its name from the initials of the three countries forming it; namely Greenland, Iceland, and the UK. Once the maritime frontline of the Cold War, it lost its importance after the fall of the Soviet Union. But if the NSR becomes a viable lane, its strategic importance will emerge once again; also because the Russian Navy is becoming active in the Atlantic once again and because Chinese ships may follow. That said, there are two other passages in the Atlantic: first, the North Sea; second, the Davis Strait, which divides Canada and Greenland and is one of the extremities of the Northwest Passage. The US and NATO can block both of them quite easily.

Finally, it should be noted that such areas work in both senses: cargos travelling from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the Arctic also need to cross the aforementioned passages. This means that Russia, and to a lesser degree China, may block them to damage Western economies; even though this would also harm themselves. Thanks to its powerful military and to its favorable geographic position, Russia is particularly well placed to act as the “Arctic seaways gatekeeper” and exploit this to exert pressure on the West or, if necessary, on China.

What future for Arctic trade?

By now, the importance of the Arctic’s chokepoints remains limited, because the trade volume across the region is still very low. But as the Polar ice cap shrinks and the Northern shipping lanes are developed, these passages will acquire a greater relevance in both economic and military terms.

Yet, the Arctic seaways will not resolve the chokepoint problem for China and other Asian powers: they will simply move it to the North. Nevertheless, such countries will probably develop such routes, because their economic sense remains as long as peace reigns: they are faster and cheaper than traditional ones. Moreover, energy deposits should not be forgotten as well. It will take decades, but the Arctic routes can reshape the world’s maritime trade; and the northern passages will become a great power battleground in case war breaks out.

The Geopolitics of Climate Change

Climate change is set to profoundly alter the world in the decades to come. Its will deeply affect the entire planet’s ecosystem, as well as the global economy and the lives of hundreds of millions of people. But it will also have, and in practice already has, a notable geopolitical impact; with the potential of radically modifying the existing international order.

Climate change and the Anthropocene

“Climate change” is a broad term encompassing various phenomena, but the most important of them is surely global warming, largely imputed to the boom in CO2 emissions caused by the massive consumption of fossil fuels, animal breeding and deforestation. The rise of the world’s average temperatures, even of a few degrees, can have tremendous consequences on the planet and on mankind. It will alter the existing climatological dynamics, resulting in more frequent and intense cases of extreme weather like droughts, violent storms, floods and blizzards. Desertification will extend to large swathes of territory. These factors will cause a dramatic drop in agricultural output, also due to the spread of pests, therefore threatening food security across the globe. Warmer temperatures will also favour the diffusion of disease, and will increase energy consumption and therefore create competition over energy sources. Whole ecosystems will be seriously harmed both on land and at sea, causing severe losses in terms of biodiversity. This will in turn result into subsequent chain damages for agriculture and fishing, that already suffer from overexploitation. The ocean level will rise, putting at risk the living conditions of millions of people who reside along the coasts. All this bears huge economic and social costs, both in the form of losses and of expenditures to repair or prevent its effects; and is to be considered along with other phenomena caused by human activity, notably pollution and overexploitation of water and soil.

The combination of these factors has led some experts to label our current geological epoch as “Anthropocene”: a period marked by the humans’ capacity to affect the environment to the point of derailing its dynamics out of the natural order. While the term remains debated among scientists, what is certain is that climate change has taken a considerable political relevance in the past few decades with the appearance of ecologist movements and parties all over the world. This is also true at the international level, with states making efforts to tackle its effects, as in the case of the 2015 COP21 agreement and other eco-friendly initiatives. But climate change will also alter the global geopolitical and geoeconomic environment, with tremendous consequences for power distribution and for international security.

The global effects of climate change

In general terms, the whole of mankind is set to be harmed by climate change. Apart from the direct economic loss in the form of reduced agricultural output, poorer fishing zones and damages to costal areas caused by rising sea levels; it will also have huge social and human costs due to environmental degradation, sanitary problems and migratory flows, which in turn will bring other expenses to repair and prevent its harmful effects.

Yet, there are areas where its impact will be more marked than in others, namely Equatorial Africa and South Asia. Both are extremely vulnerable due to their geographic position, and moreover are highly-populated zones whose economy is still underdeveloped. As a result, they will have to bear all of its negative consequences: GDP loss, food insecurity, water scarcity, violent weather, epidemics and so on; and the consequences will be felt outside these regions.

In South Asia, the costs of global warming may slow down and even stop India’s rise. Population displacements may result in a humanitarian crisis and social tensions. This is notably the case of Bangladesh, a very poor and densely-populated country extremely exposed to the negative effects of climate change. Existing divergences over the control and the use of water basins may get more serious; for example between India, Pakistan and China over Kashmir (the cornerstone of the Indus river basin) or between India, China and Bangladesh over the Ganges and Brahmaputra.

The situation is dramatically similar in Equatorial Africa. The deleterious consequences of climate change may compromise any hope of economic development, condemning the continent to poverty and perpetual conflict. As a matter of fact, fighting will result from increasing resource scarcity; notably of food and water; thus making the situation along the “Conflict Belt” that crosses it from Somalia to Nigeria even more troublesome. This is what could soon happen in Ethiopia, where the effects of climate change exacerbate economic and ethnic divides. War could also take a state-to-state dimension, as it may break out over the control of rivers like the Niger, the Congo or the Nile. In regard to the latter, some tension already exists between Egypt and Ethiopia over its use; and a future “water war” is a real possibility. Finally, this catastrophic situation will push more and more people to displace, thus amplifying an already serious humanitarian crisis. Many will try to reach Europe; perpetrating and worsening the migratory crisis that the continent is facing, with all the social and political consequences this will have on the European Union and its member states.

Still, there are also some parts of the world that are set to benefit from higher global temperatures; like those state whose development was historically hampered by a rigid climate. A first example is that of Canada or Scandinavian countries, whose agricultural output could be boosted. Russia is a similar case. Already a major wheat producer, thanks to a warmer climate it could increase its export share, even though this is debated; and it is also true that it may face migratory pressures from other countries suffering from declining production. Moreover, access to the rich resources of Siberia would become easier. Lastly, it is poised to earn from another geopolitical consequence of climate change: the melting of the Arctic ice cap.

Climate change and Arctic geopolitics

Of all the regions of the world, the Arctic appears the one where the geopolitical impact of global warming will be more marked. The reason is twofold. First, as the Arctic ice melts, accessing its considerable energy resources will become easier, and this is already attracting the attention of various countries and firms. Second, the gradual disappearance of the ice cap is opening the Northern Sea Route, or NSR; a maritime course linking Asia and Europe via the Arctic. Shipping via the NSR is already a reality, but by now the trade volume is only a tiny fraction of the one along the traditional sea lines of communication (SLOC) crossing the Pacific and Indian Ocean via Malacca, Bab-el-Mandeb and Suez. But as the ice melts and the necessary infrastructures are built, more and more ships will use the NSR due to the advantages it presents: it is way shorter than the ordinary maritime routes and is not exposed to piracy.

Due to its geopolitical prominence in the Arctic, Russia is the best-placed state to benefit from the exploitation of hydrocarbon from the region and from developing the NSR. But apart from it, the other power that is showing a great interest in the region is China. In principle, the Arctic’s energy resources and the NSR could solve its strategic problems of being almost completely reliant on the traditional SLOC for its trade with Europe and for oil imports from the Middle East, which is also a politically unstable area. This is why the Chinese are so keen on developing the region in cooperation with Russia. But for the same reasons, other states like Japan and South Korea have also showed their interest in the Arctic.

As a result of all this, competition may arise in the region, and its gateway (the Bering Strait) will gain greater geostrategic importance; potentially becoming a hotspot for international conflict, notably between Russia and the United States.

China and climate change

As an emerging great power with global-scale ambitions, China is also attentive to the effects of climate change; which offers a unique combination of opportunities and challenges for it.

Apart from the prospects of accessing the Arctic’s resources and of trading via the NSR, China could benefit in other ways of the effects of a warming planet. The combined effects of higher temperatures, economic development and population growth across the world will result into a boom in energy demand. Renewable sources of energy will be particularly regarded; as a way to reduce pollution, decrease the dependency on imported fossil fuels and minimize climate change and its detrimental consequences. But generating clean energy require technologies that use rare earths, a group of minerals whose particular characteristic are particularly valuable for industrial manufacturing. Today, China holds a virtual monopoly over their production; and even though new suppliers will enter in the market, the PRC will remain a major producer. As a consequence, its rare earths exports will be favoured by climate change.

Yet China is mostly poised to suffer from it. One reason is that its vast population is concentrated along the coasts and is vulnerable to extreme weather, rising sea level and damages to agriculture and the like. This could hamper its economic growth and consequently its social stability. For this reason, the PRC is investing enormously in developing renewable energy sources. Moreover, it could easily find itself involved in disputes with other states over water: some of the most important rivers flowing through South Asia, most notably the Brahmaputra, originate in Chinese-controlled Tibet. Similarly, Indochina’s most important rivers (namely the Mekong, the Red River and the Irrawaddy) all have their source in China.

Similar conflicts over water, agricultural lands and fishing areas may arise all over the world, taking the shape of both inter-state war or that of insurgencies and piracy. Several practical cases can be examined to understand the interplay between climate change and emerging security threats.

Climate change and security

The first one example is the surge in piracy around the Horn of Africa a few years ago. It can be imputed to a combination of the effects of domestic conflict in Somalia, fishing overexploitation and collapsing agricultural output due to drought; which left no choice to many Somalis but to attack tankers sailing close to their shores. Other countries may follow a similar path in the coming years, like Vietnam. Being an agricultural country located in an area already subject to violent tropical storms and whose population is concentrated on its very long coasts, Vietnam is considered one of the states most exposed to climate change. It is possible that the effects of higher temperatures like extreme weather and rising sea levels combined with overfishing and pollution will stop its economic growth, spark a migratory crisis and push many Vietnamese to become pirates; thus worsening the already complex scenario in the contested waters of the South China Sea. As seen before, the Bering Strait may also become an area of tension with Russia; and other conflicts may emerge in the Middle East, Africa and Asia as a consequence of rising temperatures combined with other factors; notably over the control of river basins or cultivable land.

Global warming can therefore be a powerful driver in the emergence of new security threats across the globe. And while this is often neglected, for this reason it poses a considerable challenge to the world’s leading superpower: the United States.

The US and climate change

As the core of the international system with interests at stake in any area of the globe, and as a major polluter itself, the US must be attentive to the geopolitical and security consequences of global warming. Diplomatically, the US has usually sustained the thesis of other developed countries that the cost of curbing CO2 emissions should fall on emerging economies like China, that today are the main polluters. Under the Trump administration, the US has now openly adopted a climatosceptic policy: he favours traditional fossil fuels over renewable energy sources and has left the COP21 Paris agreement.

Yet, the US is also threatened by climate change. As temperatures rise, drought and extreme weather like hurricane and snowstorms are becoming more common; causing considerable damage to agriculture, infrastructures and ultimately to the foundations of America’s strength. But as a superpower with interests in practically any region, the US will also need to face the security threats that will emerge as a consequence of climate change. Because of this, there is an institution that is particularly active in studying the effects of global warming and that calls for efforts to prevent its effects. Surprisingly, it is not some ecologist lobby, but the military.

As a 2015 report demonstrates, the Department of Defense openly expressed its concerns about the consequences of climate change over the ability of the US armed forces to operate overseas and over the multiplication of security threats that may require armed interventions. The US military is therefore adopting a preventive logic: tackling climate change today to avoid complicated campaigns in the future. Now that Trump is in power, it seems that the Pentagon is de-emphasizing the risks linked with global warming, but there have been calls from lawmakers to continue taking them into account.

Coping with climate change

As seen, global warming is having global-scale consequences that will affect virtually any domain of human life. But in general, it can be said that it puts our security at risk – be it economic, alimentary, sanitary, physical or of another type. Scientists have repeatedly raised the alarm over its deleterious effects, but up to now the actual efforts to counter it are insufficient. Since it appears that avoiding its impact is impossible and that we can at best limit its consequences, the best thing we can do is to foresee and understand them and prepare ourselves for the world that will inevitably emerge from climate change.

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