The latest consequence of climate change: The Arctic is now open for business year-round

Read Time:6 Minute, 17 Second
A large blue and white commercial ship belching smoke travels across sea ice in the middle of winter.
The Arctic tanker Christophe de Margerie, operated by Sovcomflot, is seen in the Gulf of Ob in northern Russia on February, 18, 2019. | Alexander Ryumin/TASS via Getty Images

Global competition in the Arctic is heating up as the year-round sea ice retreats.

The Arctic is now open for business year-round after a large commercial ship sailed the Northern Sea Route from Jiangsu, China, to a Russian gas plant on the Arctic coast, for the first time ever during the month of February, when winter temperatures normally make the icy waterway impassable.

The tanker, owned by Russian maritime shipping company Sovcomflot, was able to make the trip through the Arctic sea ice because it is no longer frozen all winter due to human-induced global warming.

The ability to make this trip 365 days a year opens up vast new possibilities for the shipping industry, which carries 80 percent of the world’s cargo by volume and 70 percent of global trade by value. But it also raises concerns about how the scramble to capitalize on the new route could upend geopolitics.

To get a better understanding of what this new possibility in the Arctic means for the rest of the world, I spoke to Juliette Kayyem, Belfer senior lecturer in international security at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

Kayyem served in the Obama administration as assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security, where she played a key role in handling major operations, including the administration’s response to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Kayyem reacted on Twitter to the news of the Arctic tanker’s historic trip, writing that the moment was “so consequential you can’t get your head around it.” To find out more about why she thinks this is so monumental, I gave her a call. Our discussion, edited for length and clarity, is below.


Jariel Arvin

What exactly has changed with this news?

Juliette Kayyem

In the past, trade had to work in a north-to-south way, just because the Arctic had never been navigational. Now ships can go from Europe to China on an east-west route. It’s going to put more competition on the north-south passages to retain their commercial activity.

Eighty percent of the world’s goods by volume are shipped by cargo, so this is no joke. For 100 years, cargo has essentially followed the same pathway through the Suez Canal. So, with days cut off transit time, as well as [not having to pay] all the taxes and fees that align with being a port city or canal like the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal — that’s all going to change.

Jariel Arvin

How does this change, for example, how a Chinese cargo ship would have traveled?

Juliette Kayyem

To do Europe alone, China would have gone from the Netherlands through the Suez Canal — south of India, up to China to Dalian, which is their main area. Now if you look at the route, it’s cut off by half. Now, you can go the northern route, east down. It’s mind-boggling.

Jariel Arvin

So, Russia and China are obviously going to be interested in moving goods up through that Northern Sea Route. Which other countries will be vying for a stake?

Juliette Kayyem

Japan, Vietnam, Russia, pretty much every country. Australia is going to want to go through there. I mean, why wouldn’t they, since it’s so much shorter? Now there’s going to be pressure and competition. Now you’ve just [opened up] a huge, huge competitive market.

Jariel Arvin

What about the US?

Juliette Kayyem

The United States, because we don’t really sign treaties anymore, is not signatory to the Law of the Sea. But we are a member of the Arctic Council, which is a sort of ad hoc [international] system to try to deal with everything in the Arctic, from who has access to what minerals to [how to manage] traffic.

Jariel Arvin

What do you think will be the impact of this new competition?

Juliette Kayyem

There are two pieces: the environmental piece and the geopolitical piece. For the environment, this is the equivalent of an ocean opening up. The waters are going to move in ways that they hadn’t moved before. The ice is melting in ways that mean that the water has to go somewhere, and that is going to cause sea level rise, impacting coastal cities throughout the world.

And the role of human activity in accelerating this change is undeniable. Global warming has impacted the Arctic considerably. As I’ve written for the Boston Globe, it was about a decade ago that things began changing up there in the sense that countries were positioning themselves to take over.

You’re going to start seeing cruise lines. It’s beautiful up there. So this is why even 10 years ago, I started to feel — anticipatory nauseousness is how I would describe it — anticipatory because we’ve known the opening of the Arctic to all sorts of traffic was going to happen, and nauseous because there’s no question that human-induced climate change was having a major impact.

Jariel Arvin

So what do you think the future holds for the Arctic in terms of geopolitics?

Juliette Kayyem

You’re going to have a lot of countries with a lot of interest, without a lot of governance, and with a lot of traffic. And that, to me as a security person, spells trouble.

Jariel Arvin

Why is that trouble?

Juliette Kayyem

Well, it sets off a number of questions which bring up national security concerns. One of them is, who gets what routes when? And who gets to drill where? So let’s say a bunch of geologists discover that there’s a massive oil patch much further out so that no country has ownership of the well. So who gets to drill?

Jariel Arvin

As of right now, who is in control of helping manage these international tensions in the Arctic?

Juliette Kayyem

These are the kind of issues that the Arctic Council is going to have to deal with. It is also going to have to enforce things like offshore drilling, mineral ownership, traffic, and who gets to go first, which are all tough issues. Accidents are a huge issue. What if there’s an accident? There are now going to be a lot of issues to address.

Jariel Arvin

Is there anything that can be done about this new reality?

Juliette Kayyem

I think this new reality will mean greater US engagement in the Arctic, so this will be a big test of leadership for the Biden presidency because this is an issue in which we need a counter to Russia and China.

This also will be a big moment for John Kerry, who was pushing for greater Arctic governance against a Republican Senate when he was secretary of state and couldn’t get it through. It’s something Kerry’s been focused on a long time. And now, wearing the environmental hat as Biden’s climate envoy, the potential for him to get it done is much greater.

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