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Climate Change and Security in the Arctic

This report jointly complied by the The Center for Climate and Security, the Council on Strategic Risks, and the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs details the impacts that global warming stands to have on the Arctic region and how it will affect commercial, military, and infrastructure sectors. The report also gives a some detailed background into the corresponding political situation in the Arctic from the Norwegian perspective. Read the full report here:

"Executive Summary

Across the world, climate change already poses severe threats to the natural and human systems on which security depends. These changes are of acute concern in the High North, the geography of land, sea, and ice that lies above the Arctic Circle.

The temperatures in the Arctic are rising faster than any other area on earth, causing permafrost thaw, ice melt, rising sea levels, and more frequent and extreme weather. As a result, there is increased interest in how these changes will affect the security situation in the Arctic. This report identifies key climate trends and their security implications by the year 2030, from the Norwegian perspective.

Our analysis relies on two different scenarios of global climate change to compare these effects: one in which humans substantially curb climate-change causing emissions (Curbed Warming) and one in which they do not (Uncurbed Warming). These two scenarios do not diverge substantially in terms of the direct climate change impacts faced in the Arctic in the next few years. However by 2030, it will be increasingly clear which future climate trajectory is more likely, allowing for planning for two significantly different Arctic climate security realities in the decades to follow. Our Curbed Warming Scenario describes a future of a relatively swift transition to renewable energy, as the world works to constrain global warming to below 2°C from pre-industrial levels (the 2015 Paris Agreement target). In this scenario, melting ice, sea level rise and extreme weather will significantly impact the Arctic, but are likely to happen at a more manageable pace compared to the Uncurbed Warming Scenario. Further, climate change mitigation policies aimed at a swift reduction of emissions may result in new political dynamics, economic shifts, and so-called “stranded assets” for Russia and other fossil fuel-dependent economies. However, climatic changes in the Arctic in this scenario will have both regional and global consequences, which could drive broader international security risks with highly uncertain consequences.

The Uncurbed Warming Scenario describes a future where emissions have not been constrained, and the globe is on track to well above what climate scientists deem “safe” levels of warming. In the Arctic, temperatures could rise as much as 3-5°C by mid-century, and as much as 9°C by 2100, compared to pre-industrial levels.1 This level of swift warming, due to the lack of a global energy transition, would create an ice-free Arctic for much of the year, rocked by rapid environmental changes, and crowded with commercial shipping, drilling, mining, and potentially military activities. The most intense climate impacts of this scenario will begin in the next decade, and become increasingly severe approaching mid-century and beyond. In this scenario, the most significant security risks are the destabilization of security infrastructure in the region, the opportunities for more aggressive or accidental interaction of militaries and commercial interests; and the lack of institutional capabilities to handle the rate of change.

From the perspective of the Norwegian security and defense apparatus, the security risks associated with a warmer Arctic must be layered on top of the already intensifying tensions projected for the next decade in the High North. Increasing threats of kinetic warfare, commercial competition, and demand for search and rescue is likely to put strains on military operations in the region under both climate scenarios. Moreover, existing infrastructure in the region will deteriorate due to extreme weather, and existing institutional frameworks (e.g. UNCLOS) and capabilities (e.g. Arctic Council) have not been designed or empowered to manage the new security challenges caused by climate change. One need look no further than the Arctic island of Svalbard to understand how climate change and security risks are together destabilizing infrastructure and institutions. Interest in access and control to the port, including by Russia and China, is leading to more commercial activity around the island, as well as more aggressive military and diplomatic posturing. As warming increases, particularly if fossil fuel interests in the High North do not eventually wane, Svalbard could become a more contested area.

With protection of expanding commercial interests across the Arctic of increasing importance, and distinguishing between defensive and offensive realities more difficult, the Arctic region could see accidents or misunderstandings more easily leading to escalation of conflicts. These activities and tensions will be present in both climate scenarios, but more acute under the Uncurbed Warming Scenario. There are five key takeaways resulting from our analysis:

  1. A warmer Arctic will lead to more commercial and civilian activity, rendering the Arctic increasingly navigable, and more prone to accidents and misunderstandings between major players.

  2. Increased commercial activity significantly expands the likelihood of states like Russia and China using civilian and commercial actors as vehicles for strategic positioning and for gray zone operations which may escalate to direct confrontation.

  3. The institutions that have helped depoliticize and produce stability in the Arctic for several decades may not be resilient enough to withstand new demands resulting from climate change, as climate change introduces significant uncertainties about established rules and norms, and may open the door to politicization of existing institutions.

  4. To manage in a more complex operating environment in the Arctic, with ever more state and non-state actors, governments will need an integrated toolbox that includes legal, economic, diplomatic, and military instruments. Robust mechanisms for cooperation and communication with civilian and commercial actors will be particularly useful.

  5. States are likely to place higher demands on their military forces in the Arctic, particularly as regards to monitoring and assertions of sovereignty, given higher levels of overall activity in the region. New climactic realities may also reduce the constraints for force projection in the region. At the same time, over-reliance on military approaches in the region could risk escalating conflicts.

Against this backdrop, a key recommendation for the Norwegian Ministry of Defense is to carefully consider its opportunity to approach its American counterparts at the start of a new US Administration. As President-elect, Joe Biden has pledged to advance rapid decarbonization and diplomacy to confront the climate challenge world wide, including on climate security risks. He has likewise pledged to expand cooperation in the Arctic region, and together with similar goals expressed by NATO and EU member states, new opportunities to confront climate security risks in the Arctic could be dawning.

Should the Norwegian Ministry of Defense ask the US to advance a Military Code of Conduct for Arctic Forces, or other form of renewed dialogue among Arctic security forces, the new Biden Administration is likely to seriously consider these opportunities. As historic precedent, when the Norwegian Minister of Defense in 1994 requested that the US Secretary of Defense engage Russia in Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation, this request became the basis of a decade long effort to reduce the risk of liquid waste streams from decommissioned Russian submarines in the Kola Peninsula. Norway may again have such a moment, when its priority can shape the direction of Arctic security for the coming decades.

Overall, the difference between a low or high warming scenario will be the difference between a changed world to which states can adapt or a world in which states are constantly scrambling to keep up with escalating and destabilizing change. These dramatic changes will be felt early, and perhaps most acutely in the next few years, in the Arctic. How states respond to threats and alter their behaviors to mitigate risks in the High North will reverberate globally.


Climate Security Scenarios

Whether humankind allows global temperatures to rise as high as 3.2°C from pre-industrial averages by 2100, as current trajectories predict, or limits the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, as the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement commits, will make a considerable difference for long-term climate security challenges, though the fate of the next decade is relatively locked in by past greenhouse gas emissions. This is because these two scenarios do not diverge significantly in terms of temperature change or physical impacts until the decades following 2030. However, the next decade is crucial for setting the warming path to 2050 and beyond; the IPCC cautions that by 2030 the world must achieve an average 45 percent global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to be on track to become net-zero by 2050--the target needed to meet the Paris goal. Thus, soon, we will know which trajectory is most likely: one that points towards a successful transition to reduced climate emissions and a warming of around 1.5°C degrees (Curbed Warming Scenario), or one that leads to a higher level of warming with much more dramatic effects (Uncurbed Warming Scenario). To achieve the curbed climate change scenario, new and comprehensive climate policies must be quickly implemented, and new economic and distributional consequences will follow. For example, a rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy is likely to lead to a reduction in the value of petroleum resources (so-called “stranded assets”), with significant economic consequences for fossil fuel-dependent economies.

Uncurbed climate change will likely cause significant economic effects in the long term. This scenario would likely alter the security priorities of many states as global economic markets are impacted by more frequent and severe climate impacts, and could lead to an increase in Russian force projection in the Arctic.

In both scenarios, it is likely that investments in and maintenance of infrastructure will increase due to changes in weather conditions, and that transport, commercial activity (fish, minerals, and oil and gas) and military activity will increase---and there are strong signs that these trends have already begun. The rise in commercial and military activity is likely to increase the risk of misinterpretation and miscommunication, which could lead to accidents and threaten infrastructure safety.

The analysis underlying these scenarios is based on a triangulation of sources. Most importantly, we rely on scientific climate research to understand the potential differences between the curbed and uncurbed warming trajectories and to identify probable developments and risks associated with each scenario towards 2030. The focus on 2030 is informed by considerations of the time horizon for military planning. To compare these scenarios, this report draws on existing studies of climate change impacts in the Arctic, including on the US military. In addition, the report draws on the GeGaLO index that assesses gains and losses of a green energy transition, coupled with other analyses focused on economic gains and losses for different countries due to climate change. We also draw from international climate security institutional analyses to understand impacts at the systemic level.

In sum, the methodology is to extrapolate differences from Curbed and Uncurbed warming futures, and to identify the operational, infrastructural, and institutional-distributional effects that these scenarios will have on security in the Arctic region by 2030. We stress that while in both scenarios there are both negative and positive security effects of climate change, the negative effects significantly outweigh the positive when understood from the perspective of cumulative and destabilizing effects. It is necessary to use these two scenarios as one input among many, and a means of looking more specifically at the implications for Norwegian security in the region.

CURBED WARMING SCENARIO This scenario is based on a world in which global mean temperatures are kept to around or under 2°C of warming from pre-industrial levels. In the Arctic, continued sea ice melting will occur by the timeframe of 2030, with a moderate rise in sea levels and gradual opening of sea routes, especially in the summer. Fish and seafood stocks will be impacted by northern migrations and acidification. Economic exploration of the Arctic increases, but the value of oil and gas resources in the region will be less certain, significantly impacting the Russian economy, but also the economies of Norway and other Arctic states. The effects on military relevant infrastructures are serious, but manageable. Operational challenges for force projection will require adaptation within existing platforms. Under this scenario, the political landscape will likely shift in the direction of more cooperation on climate change, and the expectation is that success in curbing emissions will yield higher trust among states. However, the transition away from non-renewable energy will be costly and unevenly distributed, which may cause friction and political tension between and within key states.

UNCURBED WARMING SCENARIO In this high emission, low mitigation scenario, human-caused emissions are not dramatically changed from their current trajectory, and global mean temperatures are on track to rise well above 3°C by the end of the century. In the Arctic, these changes are felt more rapidly, leading to extensive ice melting, rising sea levels, and ice-free summers in just a few decades. These changes may lead to a relatively short-term burst of economic activity in the area, with shipping and oil and mineral exploration, as well as more fishery activity. However, there will be uncertainty about long-term economic investments as ecosystems become more unstable. Adaptation to climate change will be costly, and increasingly so over time. Demand on security services for both force projection and search and rescue operations will increase, including possible contestation over sea routes and economic zones. Increased tension between states is also likely, as the cost of managing climate change grows. Institutions for international cooperation will likely lack the capability to manage the results of climate change. As presented in Figure 1, below, the two scenarios are quite different in terms of their effects on the broader political context in which Arctic security must be assessed. These effects are identified here as a frame for the subsequent detailed discussion below of commercial and infrastructure developments, institutional and distributional challenges, and military and operational issues."

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