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The Arctic: geopolitics and the environment
Material posted: Publication date: 28-10-2017
Geopolitics is about the politics of space which includes its various characteristic e.g. location, size, natural resources, trade routes (both land and sea), economy and of course environmental conditions.  In all classic theories of geopolitics, world has been divided into Heartland, Rimland and World Island and many areas have been identified and discussed as more important than others for various reasons. But, the Arctic has been totally ignored in all its geopolitical dimensions as we do not find any geopolitical mention of its size, location, trade route and resources etc. in any of these theories. Environmental debates are also relatively new intervention in the field of geopolitics, therefore, environment and its impact in different regions including that of Arctic is new in geopolitics modelling. But now, as the impact of climate change and global warming is becoming a reality and the environment geopolitics is increasingly making space the debate of mainstream geopolitics. Therefore, the Arctic being so vast, resourceful, and strategically located is bound to become a topic of geopolitical debate. In near future Arctic region may emerge as core area of geopolitical debates.

Most of the researches carried out by scientists from different countries indicate that ice in the Arctic region is melting with unprecedented and unpredictable rates. According to some experts, within next forty years or so most areas of the region would be ice free and navigable. This condition may lead to fierce competition and even conflict among different counties surrounding this region for the control of mining, oil and gas, sea routes and of course territory for military purpose also. This scenario seems to be more realistic as the United Nation law of sea is not clear about the status of the Arctic sea and US has also not ratified the existed law. In all schools of thought of geopolitics (e.g. classical geopolitics, post cold war geopolitics, new world order geopolitics, and critical theory) environmental geopolitics is most recent intervention.

“Robert Kaplan laid the foundation to environmental geopolitics through his work “The Coming Anarchy” where he has analysed as how the scarcity of water, global warming, deforestation, mining, melting glaciers, etc. are becoming the reasons of violence, conflict, unrest, war, and migration. Tomas Homer-Dixon also connects violence in the different part of the world with environment security. Going one step ahead, Vaclav Smil and Gareth Porter have related national security with environment security. The main challenge in environment geopolitics is territorial division of the world which make it difficult to work for an individual country to protect its environment. Some time a country may be taking all efforts to control environmental degradation but it may still be negatively impacted by the environmental pollution and degradation taking place somewhere else in the world. Therefore, the control the flow of rivers, deforestation, carbon emission, mining and pipeline pollution may become both diplomatic and security challenge for both, polluters and victims. And this may be applicable to Arctic region also as in coming years increasing activities of many surrounding countries of the Arctic sea may pollute environment in the territorial boundary of other states.

The main problem with current environmental geopolitics argument is that it is the based on the experience of environmental problems in African and Asian countries which generally don’t discuss the role of big powers in their environmental discourse. Simultaneously, in environmental geopolitical theories it is also not discussed that how much environmental degradation has occurred during colonial period in these countries and how their current economic development and policies are still being dictated/guided by their former colonial masters. One important thing which is also been ignored is the role of multinational companies in environmental degradation and related problems in third world countries. There is also need to discuss how submarines, aircraft carriers, thousand of jetfighters and other military activities are responsible for global warming and environmental problems. This is important to clearly establish because Arctic sea disputes will certainly result in increasing military build-up and related activities in the region and a fair assessment of these activities is compulsory.

Many experts have even predicted environmental warfare in near future geopolitical scenario.  Environment as weapon (like the use of artificial avalanche, floods, river flow diversification etc.) may be used to destroy enemies and their properties (US has already done it in Vietnam). In South Asia, rival countries have been blamed for floods in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and even China by the media of each country. Indian media claims that China has created some artificial lakes to use against India in war situation.  Though, the potential of environmental warfare to destroy the enemies and their property may be debated but it is clear the first causality would the environment and ecology of that particular region itself. And all these war tactics may possibly be used in the Arctic region also.

From the environmental perspective, the Arctic region is one of a kind. Apparently, its plant and animal life have adapted to extreme cold conditions; so have its people. The global warming and climate change have cast their effects on the Arctic ice. Of late, the Arctic sea ice has been melting and thus shrinking in both size and depth. This change in climatic conditions will have adverse effects on fauna and flora. The CH4 and CO2 which are being released in large volumes due to ice melting are known to have raised temperatures further.  This will cause major changes in the distribution of flora. The composition of northern plant species will be suppressed by the migration of those from the southern region. This will impact the existing life, as the insects which are an important pollination carrier, will be endangered. Distribution of plant life also bears upon the distribution of animal life which are directly or indirectly dependent on plants. Fish population as well as migratory birds will also be adversely affected owing to an increase in the sea temperature; and thereby reducing the availability of food and affecting the habitats. Due to higher CO2 composition, the acidity in the sea water will rise. Many species like walruses will lose their natural habitats as food scarcity mounts. It is premature to estimate precisely the adverse impacts of climate change on the Arctic region. Nevertheless, it will be too late by the time these changes happen. 

With the melting of ice and the opening of the sea new development like increase in air traffic, development of sea port, pipeline, railway line, infrastructures and other activities will take place and with this will increase geopolitical rivalry mainly between Russia and US including European countries. It is because Russia may emerge as a major beneficiary and it will be contested by US and its allies and they may use Arctic region ecology and environment as a geopolitical tool/weapon against Russia. So there is a need to address the issue of environment and ecology conservation in the Arctic area especially by Russia.

To stop any confusion, misunderstanding and blame game there is a need for better intergovernmental and regional cooperation for the conservation/management of Arctic environment.

There is a need to conduct extensive survey of the distribution of Arctic flora and fauna and have a proper record of any changes taking place in their habitat and health.

There is also a need to check those activities (natural and manmade) which may be negatively affecting different species of flora and fauna of the region.

There should be a regular exchange of information and data of the condition of ecology and environment as well as reports of all developmental activities taking place in the territory of regional countries by an intergovernmental cooperation management system.

Dr. Javed Zafar has done  Ph.D in Geopolitics from Jamia Millia Islamia, new Delhi.  He is expert in Political Geography, Geopolitics, Geo-strategy and Energy.

Tags: Arctic , India

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