Geopolitics of Climate Change: Race for the Arctic

Written by: Calvin Floyd

The United States, China and Russia are competing in a race for the Arctic that is driven by anthropogenic climate change and profit. Seeing economic opportunities in resource extraction and shipping routes made available by melting Arctic ice, China has been driven to stake claims in the region in the last decade. As a result, Cold War-like tensions between the United States, Russia, and China have set the stage for what will likely become the biggest geopolitical conflict of the next century. 

As Arctic ice melts due to climate change, more and more opportunities to establish soft power in the region have come to light. In 2019, China’s special representative for Arctic affairs said that “The melting ice also provides economic opportunities for the development of the Arctic” at the 2019 Arctic Circle Conference in Reykjavik. This story affects all of the Arctic states—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States—as well as the six major Indigenous groups who make up 500,000 of the Arctic’s four million inhabitants. It is important to note the absence of China in this group. However, in 2018, China self-declared itself a “Near-Arctic” state. The Wall Street Journal quips that China is just as much an Arctic state as New York is a “Caribbean state.” China’s northernmost point is still thousands of miles from the Arctic Circle. That being said, with environmental changes driving global interest in the region, China and five other countries were granted permanent observer status on the Arctic Council at a meeting in 2013. While permanent observers have no decision-making power, China will always have a seat at the diplomatic table when it comes to Arctic deliberations. It marks a new era in international relations in which the warming climate will serve as the primary catalyst for geopolitical friction.

Thus, we have arguably the world’s three greatest powers—the United States, Russia, and China—all vying for power in the Arctic. In many ways, this faceoff serves as a pseudo war, a microcosm of a much greater conflict playing out on the global stage between the three superpowers. This smaller stage is not unlike the conflicts between Europe’s greatest powers in the Middle East in the first decade of the 20th century that foreshadowed World War I. However, for the time being, the conflict in the Arctic is primarily soft, a collection of subtle moves here and there with only the threat of full-on world war.

Here, I will highlight the two great incentives for each of these three superpowers to gain power in the Arctic—each is resource-based, and each is only becoming available because of climate change. To be clear, the Arctic is melting; according to the World Wildlife Fund, we lose 13% of Arctic sea ice every decade. Of course, the Arctic isn’t just ice—the Arctic Circle encapsulates millions of acres of land as well, and as temperatures rise this land is losing ice-cover and is thawing. This means two things: one, resources previously trapped under ice are becoming available for the first time, and two, shipping lanes through the Arctic are opening for the first time. 

According to The U.S. Energy Information Administration, it is estimated that some 13% of the world’s undiscovered crude oil and 30% of its untapped natural gas reserves lie trapped under Arctic ice. Just last year, China took a 30% stake in a liquified natural gas operation on Russia’s Yamal peninsula. These statistics are also driving Russia to reconsider former Soviet drilling operations in what is now Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago and drove the Trump administration to pursue drilling operations in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.  

However, oil and natural gas aren’t the only resources up for grabs in the Arctic. Climate change is also affecting one of our society’s most valuable resources: food. For much of its history, Russia has, in a large part, been covered by frozen wasteland. Now, with the global productivity zone moving progressively northward, Russia’s vast tundra will turn into millions of acres of arable land. Yet as the climate continues to warm, areas we now consider highly agriculturally productive —like the American midwest— will no longer be so, and Russia will become the breadbasket of the world. The economies of the United States, India, western Europe, to name a few, will struggle and rely on Russia. These examples show the first way Russia will profit off of climate change, and explain why China would want in on the action.

The other profit-driven incentive to control the Arctic pertains to shipping routes. According to the Arctic Institute, as recently as 2007 the Northwest Passage, one of the three major shipping routes across the Arctic, became navigable year-round for the first time in recorded history. Now, this is becoming the reality for the other Arctic shipping routes. As Arctic sea ice melts, Arctic shipping routes open, making international trade easier for countries with rights to the water. China appears to be taking the most advantageous approach to this development, working closely with Russia to fully open the Northwest Passage as well as the Northern Sea Route. The opening of these routes gives China, the world’s second largest economy, a significant leg up in global trade by drastically cutting the time of transportation from its Special Economic Zones to major European ports like Rotterdam and Antwerp. This “polar silk road” initiative plays into China’s larger Belt and Road initiative which consists of a series of infrastructure projects with the goal of integrating China into every aspect of the global trade network. China and Russia have found a way to profit off of climate change, and the implications of melting sea ice could turn the Arctic into the next Suez or Panama Canal.

The United States is certainly not merely a passive observer in this race, either. The US is, however, relatively late to the game. While China and Russia have been investing in the arctic—setting up new research stations and investing in mining and energy while also collaborating on the northern sea routes—the US has mostly had its hands full with domestic issues relating to the White House. However, when the State Department saw that two of its biggest rivals were collaborating on infrastructure projects in the Arctic, and after China made its ambitions for Greenland known, the US could no longer ignore the race for the Arctic., a trusted voice in foreign policy, notes that China has serious economic interest in Greenland due to its uranium and rare earth elements, offshore drilling opportunities, and its relative proximity to the United States. Of course, the United States has had a military presence in Greenland since World War Two, so these ambitions came as a major development in Washington and is perhaps the reason Donald Trump proposed purchasing Greenland. While this proposal was largely mocked by the international community, China’s interest in the Danish territory has led to increased American activity on the island including the reopening of the US Consulate in its capital, Nuuk, in June of 2020. 

Perhaps most notably for the United States, in 2019 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US would be creating a new senior military post for Arctic affairs at a speech at the Arctic Council—signaling to Russia and China that they meant business. This move by the United States came on the heels of Russia’s largest military maneuvers since the Cold War “with 300,000 troops and a small Chinese military contingent joining in for maneuvers held, in part, in the Arctic.” These maneuvers were “followed by NATO’s largest military exercises since the Cold War, with 50,000 troops going through maneuvers in the same region.” Tensions are growing in the Arctic, it is not all talk.

China has made its aspirations for Arctic influence known and has to continued to collaborate with Russia on its Maritime Silk Road Project and resource extraction, Russia’s Putin has seized on the opportunity climate change is presenting to become closer with Xi Jinping and China while preparing to become the world’s next breadbasket, and the United States has just recently joined the arena in Greenland while dealing with its own domestic conflicts surrounding resource extraction in the Alaska. All the while, each of these entities has bolstered their military influence in the region in what Mike Pompeo has called “an arena of global power and competition.” As long as anthropogenic climate change persists and capitalism continues to outweigh concerns of international security and wellbeing, it is only a matter of time before these tensions boil over into legitimate conflict that will affect all of us.