Changing Climates and Polar Pursuits

Changing Climates and Polar Pursuits

Indo-Asia-Pacific states take an increased interest in the Arctic and Antarctica as their governments create plans to manage climate change


Today’s global population of roughly 7.1 billion is expected to grow to 8.3 billion people by 2030, placing increased demand on dwindling resources for energy, food and water. Such international strains have the potential to send countries scrambling for assets and ultimately deadlock in conflict.

“Climate change can worsen tensions and increase the risk of conflict between states as sea-level rises, coastlines retreat and the eventual submergence of small low-lying islands affect maritime boundaries and exclusive economic zones where natural resources are located,” according to “Be Prepared; Climate Change, Security and Australia’s Defence Force,” a 2015 report produced by the Australia-based Climate Council. “Leading international organizations and defense forces around the world, from the Pentagon to NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] member states and now the G7, have all identified climate change as a significant threat to national security.”

Anticipation for such security threats and resource competition already has governments planning for a future wrought with environmental uncertainties. Several have included areas of the Arctic and Antarctica as future resource cache, especially as climate change melts polar ice caps and creates unprecedented year-round access to previously untapped reserves.

“Whilst some resources are projected to decline, aggravating conflict, the availability of new resources may also have the potential to increase rivalry between nations,” according to the Climate Council.

It points out that the Arctic has been warming at twice the normal rate since 1980, which has contributed to melting ice caps. Some projections estimate that the Arctic Ocean could be entirely free of summertime ice by the end of the century, making Arctic waters easier to navigate, opening up new shipping routes, lengthening the shipping season and increasing access to significant oil and gas reserves. According to scientists, Arctic waters haven’t been ice-free for at least 100,000 years.

“In the long term, this could increase the risk of potential disputes between nations over access and recovery of these reserves,” according to the Climate Council. “The South China Sea and Arctic examples demonstrate how climate change, through rising sea levels and shrinking sea ice, may serve to further complicate sovereignty tensions between nations, although at present, existing political institutions have succeeded in managing these tensions.”

China has asserted its interests in the Arctic. Although it has yet to publish an Arctic strategy paper, its interests in the region have slowly grown in recent years.

“Despite the absence of a formal policy, there are three lines of engagement — scientific research, bilateral economic relations and participation in regional governance — which form the basis of Beijing’s Arctic interactions. These help provide insights into China’s underlying aspirations in the region,” according to a March 2016 East Asia Forum report. “China’s Arctic engagements originate from and are still dominated by scientific research projects aimed at building partnerships with many Arctic countries to further climatic and environmental research. Some commentators are quick to dismiss Beijing’s scientific endeavors as camouflaging other political goals. But the massive environmental and climate change challenges China confronts should not be dismissed. These challenges motivate much of their scientific and climate work internationally.”

To clear up any confusion about its position on the Arctic, Chinese officials have acknowledged their interest in the region. China also holds a permanent observer position with the Arctic Council.

“China’s willingness to become an Arctic Council observer supports the view that China does not challenge the sovereignty of the littoral states in the Arctic Ocean and remains committed to respecting the rule of law, including UNCLOS [the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea],” according to a December 2015 report by The Diplomat, an online news magazine. “China is positioning itself, and gaining a ‘foot in the door,’ in order to access and extract resources and take advantage of strategic, economic, military and scientific opportunities in the Arctic region in the years ahead.”

Russia, meanwhile, hasn’t been as subtle with its desire to claim resources in the Arctic. In August 2015, it submitted a new territorial claim to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, claiming its continental shelf stretched farther into the Arctic Ocean than previously thought. If the claim is validated, Russia would gain control over an expanded area of fishing, oil, gas and other resources, according to an April 2016 report by the Nikkei Asian Review magazine.

The icebreaker Ahto stops in the middle of an ice field off the coast of Tornio in northern Finland in February 2016 to test how an oil spill would flow under the Arctic ice. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Russia already had 40 icebreakers in the region and began testing a new one in April 2016, Nikkei reported. It’s also considering building another military base in the region, according to the magazine.

India, which also has a permanent observer status with the Arctic Council, participated in trilateral talks with China and Russia in 2015 to discuss the potential for cooperating on oil and natural gas production. Those scarce details left some wondering whether that cooperation could extend to a partnership in exploring the Arctic as it thaws.

“While India still maintains that its interests in the Arctic are largely scientific, China has taken a more assertive stance, referring to itself as a ‘near Arctic state,’ ” Politico reported in August 2015.

One New Delhi journalist said that as countries acknowledge the realities of melting ice in the Arctic, many have shifted their focus from environmental to economic. India has focused on Antarctica for years, but its research in the Arctic region has increased more recently, according to DailyO, an online opinion platform for the India Today Group. In 2015, India began pushing for a larger role in the Arctic, touting itself as a leader in scientific research.

Indian researchers also say the polar atmospheric process in the Arctic region is linked to the intensity of India’s monsoon season.

“Though such teleconnections are a matter of academic debate, a comprehensive understanding of the Arctic is therefore of special importance for [a] monsoon-dependent agrarian economy like ours,” Indian Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan said in May 2015, according to New Delhi Television.

As climate change causes sea levels to rise, it also drives up global temperatures and increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. These impacts will limit the availability of food and water, undermine human health and devastate infrastructure and economies, according to the Climate Council.

“We have been given first-hand information by scientists that if the current trend continues, sea levels may rise by half a meter within the next 50 years, and by a meter within a century,” Sam Tan, who represents Singapore on the Arctic Council, told Singaporean newspaper Today in June 2016. “If this really happens, many nations around the world, including Singapore, would be at risk from having parts of their country submerged under the water.”

These types of events could exacerbate existing tensions, increase societal instability, drive large-scale migration and be a trigger for violent conflict. That’s why military forces, and the broader security sector, have labeled climate change a “threat multiplier,” according to the Climate Council.

“Extreme weather events have direct implications for military preparedness and the ability of the military to sustain itself,” the Climate Council stated, “whilst greater instability, conflict and climate-induced migration will shape the types of roles and missions that militaries will conduct in the future.”

Antarctic Stewardship

Declaring itself a leader in Antarctica for the past 100 years, Australia asserts sovereignty over 42 percent of the Antarctica continent. As new players insert themselves into the landscape in a race for untapped resources, Australia risks a decline in its longtime dominance as an Antarctica powerhouse.

“Australia now has a narrow window of opportunity to underline its Antarctic strategic interests and demonstrate its leadership in Antarctic affairs,” according to the Australian government’s “20 Year Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan,” released in 2014. “Australia must match its Antarctic aspirations with clear demonstration of presence and leadership in the Australian Antarctic Territory,” the report said, calling on Australia to become a “partner of choice” in East Antarctic logistics and science.

A crew from the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Healy retrieves supplies in the Arctic Ocean during a research mission. REUTERS

Australia readily acknowledges that China, India and South Korea have also recently expanded their involvement in Antarctica. (Additionally, Japan and the U.S. each have scientific stations in Antarctica.) China has even gone so far as to build several new stations in the region and added a new icebreaker to aid in marine research.

Antarctica is governed internationally through the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959 by 12 countries whose scientists were active in and around the region at the time, according to the Australian government’s Department of the Environment Australian Antarctic Division.

The total number of Parties to the Treaty is now 53. Among the signatories of the treaty were seven countries — Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom — with territorial claims, sometimes overlapping. Other countries do not recognize any claims.

A fisherman sails a boat near the Jakobshavn Glacier and the Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland, north of the Arctic Circle. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Australia remains keen on protecting Antarctica and doing what it can to broker cooperation in the region to prevent unnecessary competition. In February 2016, Australia hosted China for inaugural talks on Antarctic and Southern Ocean affairs.

“The meeting signals our desire to strengthen cooperation on Antarctic science, operations and enhanced environmental protection,” Australia and China said in a joint statement following the meeting. “We agreed on priorities to guide our future work, both on the ground in Antarctica and through the Antarctic Treaty system.”

The countries agreed to convene a joint committee every two years. In the meantime, the following are initial priorities agreed upon during the inaugural meeting:

  • Ensure the joint committee serves as an effective overarching framework for China-Australia Antarctic cooperation and the platform to complement strong operations and science cooperation.
  • Agree to focus on future scientific cooperation.
  • Hold a joint East Antarctic workshop on collaborative science in 2017.
  • Advance policy discussions on enhanced environmental protection and other key areas.
  • Commit to support each other’s national Antarctic programs.
  • Establish professional exchanges of scientists, officials and scholars on policy, science and operations.

“China and Australia have a strong tradition of cooperation in Antarctica spanning many decades. Australia helped facilitate China’s first visit to east Antarctica 30 years ago, and we have continued to work closely together, providing support for each other’s Antarctic programs,” their joint statement added. “Australia will continue to work closely with China and other countries to conduct world-class science and protect Antarctica’s unique environment.”

Climate change’s effects on the Military

Several countries have identified climate change as a threat to national security and begun creating plans to deal with its inevitability. The Australian Climate Council created the following checklist of actions that militaries should consider to combat climate change’s potential effects.


  • Incorporate and mainstream climate change into national strategic military planning.
  • Appoint a senior military authority as a climate change planning officer.
  • Publish a climate change adaptation strategy.
  • Participate in interagency climate change working groups.
  • Analyze climate change impacts on military base locations and military base capacity.


  • Analyze climate change risks to military training.
  • Analyze climate change impacts on the readiness of individual Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines.
  • Analyze climate change in military doctrine, specifying how militaries respond with disaster relief.
  • Analyze health impacts of climate change on military forces and operational areas.


  • Mandate renewable energy targets for military bases.
  • Conduct risk assessments of sea-level rise and inundation on military bases.
  • Conduct risk assessments of climate-affected extreme weather events on military bases.


  • Mandate fuel and energy efficiency goals in the purchase of major military hardware and platforms, including the use of biofuels and hybrids.
  • Analyze climate change risks to critical civilian infrastructure and civilian workforce and resultant impacts on military infrastructure, operations and training.
  • Implement sustainable procurement practices to include energy efficient civilian vehicle fleets, energy efficient lighting, heating and waste reduction strategies.

China wants ships to use faster Arctic route


China wants ships flying its flag to take the Northwest Passage via the Arctic Ocean, a route opened up by global warming, to cut travel times between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, a state-run newspaper announced in April 2016.

China is increasingly active in the polar region, becoming one of the biggest mining investors in Greenland and agreeing to a free trade deal with Iceland. Shorter shipping routes across the Arctic Ocean would save Chinese companies time and money. For example, the journey from Shanghai to Hamburg via the Arctic route is 2,800 nautical miles shorter than going through the Suez Canal.

Also in April 2016, China’s Maritime Safety Administration released a guide offering detailed route guidance from the northern coast of North America to the northern Pacific, the China Daily newspaper reported.

“Once this route is commonly used, it will directly change global maritime transport and have a profound influence on international trade, the world economy, capital flow and resource exploitation,” ministry spokesman Liu Pengfei told the newspaper.

Chinese ships will sail through the Northwest Passage “in the future,” Liu added, without giving a time frame. Most of the Northwest Passage lies in waters that Canada claims as its own. Asked if China considered the passage an international waterway or Canadian waters, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China noted Canada considered that the route crosses its waters, although some countries believed it was open to international navigation.

In Ottawa, a spokesman for Foreign Minister Stephane Dion said no automatic right of transit passage existed in the waterways of the Northwest Passage.

“We welcome navigation that complies with our rules and regulations. Canada has an unfettered right to regulate internal waters,” Joseph Pickerill said.

Maritime experts say shipping companies would most likely be deterred by the unpredictable nature of Arctic ice, the total absence of infrastructure in the region, relatively shallow waters, a lack of modern mapping and increased insurance costs. The route would also be strategically important to China, another maritime official, Wu Yuxiao, told the China Daily.

Melting sea ice has spurred more commercial traffic, and China wants to become more active in the Arctic, where it says it has important interests.