Climate change may result in more conflicts in the Arctic

Researcher Marius Nyquist Pedersen believes the Norwegian authorities should prepare for a new reality in the High North.

Pedersen is the author of a new report titled 'A Warming Arctic in a Cold War – consequences of climate change for Norwegian security in the Arctic'. It provides insight into the security situation of an important area for Norway, the High North, and how it may develop.

‘Climate change is a challenge in many areas. But there’s limited research on how these changes affect our security. We wanted to look at this question from a Norwegian perspective,’ Pedersen says.

Consequences for Norway

Pedersen first considered various states’ Arctic strategies and trends in international politics. Then, he analysed how these trends and strategies can be affected by climate change. Finally, he assessed what consequences this may have for Norway.

The report is primarily aimed at employees in the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Armed Forces, but Pedersen believes the report will be useful for anyone with a general interest in politics, security, or the climate.

The Arctic peace bubble is bursting

‘Throughout the decades of cold war, the Arctic was in many ways a different landscape that was protected from international tension,’ says Pedersen.

‘Cooperation has worked well, despite varying levels of tension between major powers globally. However, this has changed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For example, we’ve stopped cooperating with Russia through the Arctic Council. Thus, we’ve lost an important diplomatic forum to keep the level of conflict down. There’s radio silence.

‘When we stop talking together, there’s an increased risk of misunderstanding and conflict,’ Pedersen points out.

A struggle for resources

Pedersen believes that as additional resources and trade routes become available, the global superpower rivalry will increasingly reach the Arctic.

Warmer seas can cause new fish species to migrate to new areas. Mining minerals on the seabed is also a hot topic. With more activity, the risk of conflict will increase.

‘We must expect that several major powers will be present in the Arctic. They often have a tense relationship with each other. At the same time, we see weaker diplomatic and political cooperation in the Arctic. If everyone fishes in the same place, without any underlying conventions or agreements, there may be conflicts over who should have access.

FFI’s project on climate and security

The Armed Forces and the total defence have to adjust and adapt as a result of ongoing and future climate change.

At FFI, there are many professionals from different fields who study operations, new technology, and security policy and how climate change will affect those.

The project will initially last from 2022 to 2024.

The project aims to

  • examine the impact of climate change on national security
  • examine the importance of the transition to sustaianable energy sources for the Armed Forces, emphasising self-sufficient and climate-neutral emergency power systems
  • assess current operational concepts in the light of climate change and adaption
  • examine international cooperation in order to strengthen the defence sector’s climate adaption

Disagreement about sustainability in the North

Pedersen points out that different nations have different goals and ambitions in the Arctic. This can be fertile ground for conflicts.

‘Many states agree to strengthen sustainable development and environmental work. Russia seems more interested in exploiting resources, though. They control close to half of the coastline surrounding the Arctic. Such a large Arctic player not prioritising sustainability and climate will damage sustainable development in the region. This could have global consequences,’ Pedersen points out.

The Northeast Passage

Ship traffic through the Northeast Passage is a possible source of conflict. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea gives Russia extended powers over the sea north of Siberia, but only as long as the area is covered by ice for most of the year.

‘Today, Russia demands that ships sailing through the passage pay customs duty and have a Russian pilot. Russia wants to control who sails in the passage. This will be a hot topic going forward,’ says Pedersen.

The presence of ice is essential for the extended Russian powers granted by the convention. Many western countries will see the entire passage as international waters as the ice disappears. Is Russia willing to give up its powers? How far are the actors willing to go to get what they want?

‘Russia has probably seen the ice as a protective barrier. The question is how they will handle the situation if it gets easier to sail across the North Pole.’

The pickle of Svalbard

Another source of conflict is Norway’s interpretation of the Svalbard Treaty and fishing rights in the sea around the archipelago (see the info box).

Norway claims the rights to manage fisheries in the area. Many countries disagree with this. What happens if several countries demand to fish there?

The fishery protection zone around Svalbard

The fishery protection zone around Svalbard extends 200 nautical miles from Svalbard. Within this zone, Norway claims the right to regulate fishing in order to preserve fishing resources.

The Svalbard Treaty states that all citizens have the same right to fish and catch in Svalbard. The Norwegian authorities interpret the treaty so that it only applies on land and in Svalbard’s territorial waters, i.e. within 12 nautical miles from the baselines.

Several states dispute this interpretation. So in order not to provoke other countries that could have economic interests in the zone, the Norwegian authorities have decided that the fishery protection zone will not apply to resources other than fish and that there will be no distinctions made with regards to nationality when it comes to fishing rights.

Nonetheless, the allocation of fishing quotas has been practiced so that countries with a history of fishing around Svalbard have priority.

Climate change may affect allied support

In the future, the great powers will be more concerned with the Arctic. Pedersen nevertheless still believes that climate change could lead to reduced NATO support for Norway.

‘Climate change affects the whole world. But the intensity of it varies, and there are many different timelines. Regardless, climate change will lead to new security challenges for our allies. We may see extensive human migration. Existing conflicts may intensify, or new conflicts may arise along NATO’s outer borders. Resources that could otherwise have gone to allied support in the North, will perhaps be tied up in other conflicts,’ Pedersen says.

China – a ‘near-Arctic state’

The report points to China as a wildcard in the north.

‘China and Russia believe that the current world order serves Western interests. They want a revision, away from a bipolar world with the US at the top towards a multipolar world order with several superpowers,’ Pedersen says.

This view is manifested in how they act internationally, including through massive investments in trade routes and infrastructure.

‘China’s main interest in the Arctic today is the trade route. The Northeast Passage cuts sailing time considerably. But China wants to be a bigger international player. When access to resources in the Arctic increases and the waters are more accessible, China will likely take a more active role. They define themselves as a near-Arctic state and are already present with research stations and icebreakers.

‘If the power gap between the US and China narrows, it may increase China’s willingness to challenge the status quo and the current laws and norms for activity in the Arctic,’ Pedersen says.

‘Minerals are important in our transition to a green society. China is an important power, in part because of its mineral resources. If the West extracts the same resources and minerals elsewhere, for example in the Arctic, China may see that as a threat to their interests. Perhaps they will demand access to the mineral resources in the Arctic itself?’

What should Norway do?

Pedersen believes the Norwegian authorities should see climate change as a threat in itself, not just a threat multiplier.

‘Traditional security thinking dictates that something is not a threat if it can’t lead to conflict. This definition is too narrow when it comes to climate change. We need to think differently about security. Climate change is not just one of many factors making up other threats, but a threat in and of itself. The US, the UK and Germany already think this way.

‘We must also prepare for greater interest in the Arctic and a greater presence from major powers. Great powers and new actors do not come to the Arctic with the intention of creating war or conflict. They come to fish, protect their ships, and extract resources. With today’s political climate, the treaties or agreements that regulate this activity may not be good enough. Absence of rules will increase the risk of conflicts,’ says Pedersen. 

‘On 28 June 1914, “nobody” believed that an assassination attempt would lead to war throughout Europe. The world in 1914 was more globalised than ever before. But it only took a month before everything was turned upside down. I’m not saying World War III will start in the Arctic. But increased activity, less cooperation, and more tension can lead to unintended incidents in the area. This type of uncertainty is a risk for Norway, because the Arctic is our neighbourhood.’