GEOPOLITICS OF CLIMATE CHANGE IN THE ARCTIC: AN INDIAN PERSPECTIVE
Commercial interest in the Arctic region has increased substantially since the turn of the 21st century. The Arctic is ‘opening up' to human activity. Most countries around the world are fighting for a share of the pie. This has a massive negative impact on the pristine environment of the Arctic. The Paris Agreement has become an ivory tower, where nations can ring in hollow promises without fear of repercussions. Real action must begin somewhere. Climate Change is an issue that requires global co-operation, instead, it fosters global competition.
Image Credits: Malte Humpert
India seeks to play a constructive role in the Arctic by leveraging its vast scientific pool and expertise in Himalayan and Polar research. It realizes that the Arctic influences the atmospheric, oceanographic, and ecological routes of the planet. Although India is nowhere close to the Arctic, it realizes the importance of global warming and the impact it can have on global climate. Since its first scientific expedition into the Arctic back in 2007, India has had great regard for monitoring shifts in the Arctic. India’s Arctic Policy Roadmap for Sustainable Engagement detail show India could be largely impacted by the fluctuations in the Arctic regions’ climate. For India, it is now a concern of weather, water scarcity, monsoon patterns etc.
In the 21st century, climate change is a major catalyst through which relationships between countries, the future of the organization and the financial system of nations are shaped. Political decisions and actors have a deep and permanent impact on all-concerning issues-particularly such as climate change.
It is my aim to understand the different schools of thoughts that drive the decision-making process regarding climate change, specifically with respect to the Arctic region. Hence, I interviewed Dr Vishnu Nandan, a research scientist with strong demonstrated expertise in polar remote sensing of the Arctic and Antarctic sea ice, to gain an informed perspective on the dynamics of the world’s nations, with respect to their stakes in the Arctic. He was the only Indian on the MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate) expedition, among 300 other scientists from 20 countries. The MOSAiC expedition was the largest polar expedition in history, where these researchers physically went to the Arctic to gain a deeper understanding of global climate change and its subsequent effects.
Interviewer: What was it like being a part of the largest ever arctic expedition, and being the only Indian among 300 other nationalities?
Dr. Vishnu Nandan: That was this recent MOSAiC Expedition. MOSAiC is the largest and the longest expedition ever recorded in polar history where the German research icebreaker R/V Polarstern was intentionally anchored on to a sea ice piece (floe) for one year. The year-long expedition was divided into 5 legs, in which I participated in Leg 2 between November 2019 and April 2020, during the dark polar winters.
Interviewer: What is the first thought that comes to your mind when you relate geopolitics and climate change? Do you think this issue is as important?
Dr. Vishnu Nandan: The answer remains subjective. If you ask someone from India, not many will care. Ask someone in Delhi, they would not know much about the Arctic Council and their geopolitics. But if you ask me, with some knowledge in it, I would say; with increasing climate change, it becomes increasingly challenging for governments and also for the general public to adapt and be flexible with new policies because this directly or indirectly affects our livelihood. For example, in places like Victoria in Canada’s British Columbia province, over the past two or three years, they experience snowfall in winters. Lying right next to the Pacific Ocean, usually, they should and have been experiencing warm weather, very similar to Southern India. But recently, they are seeing freezing temperatures, which is unusual and scary also.
When there is climate change, glaciers are melting, it becomes a war for freshwater. With increased marine navigation from different countries, through Canadian and US Arctic waters, obviously, at some point, geopolitical tensions may arise. Governments will start proclaiming that these waters are ‘their’ internal (domestic) waters. This means ships from other countries will have to pay heavy import and shipping taxes. This affects me, you, and everybody else in the middle. As a consumer, you would have to pay heavy taxes on the products that you want to get delivered to your place. But, as a layman, you would not know the intermediate reasons for which you are paying such high taxes.
So, there is a multitude of factors that create a lot of geopolitical tension because of climate change. And we are directly affected by that, unknowingly. We might end up blaming others for it.
Interviewer: While the Arctic Council works towards environmental protection and sustainable development, the inability to address the regional politics threatens to undo their work. What do you think about the impact such diplomatic mechanisms can have on the current environmental situation?
Dr. Vishnu Nandan: The straight answer to that question is, there is not much of a regional politics which actively threatens to undo their work, because the Arctic Council is not a body that makes full-fledged decisions. It is a governing body consisting of member states where all states abide by the ‘Law of the Sea’. It is called the ‘Law of the Sea’ i.e., when you are in the sea, the geopolitical sovereignty (authority) is only for twelve nautical miles (just that radius). For example, the Norwegian cruise port, Tromso, is the northernmost port in Norway. If you take a ship from there, the sea is under Norway only till the first twelve nautical miles. Beyond that, its international waters. This example applies to all countries around the world. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Arctic ocean is where countries have their sovereignties. There lies a mutual understanding between them on how they can split and use up the resources. When I say resources, you must understand the resources they can excavate from lie in the deep seabed, where they can start drilling for oil and natural gases (but, only when sea ice is absent).
Now, coming to the geopolitical threat, there is a shipping passage called ‘The North-West Passage’. It is a trans-Atlantic route that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, so the easiest way for going from the Atlantic to the Pacific is going through the Arctic Ocean waters. Although, this route goes through various water bodies governed by their respective countries, mostly Canada since this actually goes through Canada’s northernmost islands. There is some sort of friction between Canada and the United States in that regard. However, one must understand that this friction is very hyped. It should not be branded as a geo-political tension or anything. There could be geopolitical friction in vulnerable climate situations when it comes to marine navigation between different countries.
To be honest, visibly, the impact of diplomatic situations on the current environmental conditions is none. The Arctic sea ice is melting fast and there is not much thick, strong old ice remaining in the Arctic Ocean. Due to global warming, the ice has started melting earlier than expected and is exposed to sunlight for a longer period of time. Now, looking at all this from a shipping standpoint, it is easier for ships to break through the ice and go from one area to another.
Interviewer: There are many ways in which security issues could be included in international discussions, but it seems as though states are turning a blind eye to a very obvious problem that needs addressing. The climate is getting warmer, and the sea is melting away: Do you think any game-changing action will be taken by authorities to avoid potential problems?
With China, Russia, and the United States all setting their sights on Arctic expansion, do you think this will lead to an establishment to facilitate security discussions of the region or backfire and become worse?
Dr. Vishnu Nandan: Like I said before, it is easier to transit through the various Arctic governed waters when the sea ice is melting. That is one aspect. Another aspect is security. For example, in northern Russia, there is a place called Franz Josef Land. It is a coastal area, close to the Arctic. Russians have military and nuclear installations in there. At the same time, in north-eastern Greenland, the US has a military airbase. If you look closely, you will realize this region to be a strategic location. You have Russians on one side and the US on the other side in Greenland, governed by Denmark. Now, the Danish government is concerned about the increasing presence of the US in Greenland because they think that they are losing the administration in Greenland. (Trump wanted to buy Greenland out). China too has a strong presence in Greenland, where they are building infrastructures like ports and airports. At the same time, the US does not like China’s presence in Greenland. If there are potential issues between the United States and Russia because of increased military presence, then Denmark does not want to play the mediator role in between.
So, a summary of my answer is, an increasing military presence can only happen if the environment is favourable. And when I say a favourable environment, I mean summer in the Arctic, where there is no ice. This makes it easier for people to have access to strategic locations and increase their military presence. For example, the economic conditions might allow China to build their presence in the Arctic, although they do not have anything to do with the Arctic (they still want a piece of it).
There is nothing called a game-changing action. The IPCC and the UNCC, gave instructions to every country, not just the Arctic Council countries to make sure that within the next thirty years, the global warming rates should increase only up to 1.5 degrees, no more than that. Canada has been pushing millions of dollars, trying to reduce the greenhouse gas emission in the Arctic, such as black carbon, methane, etc. So, they are doing their initiatives and alongside also helping other countries to push their initiative. Canada is contributing well to these initiatives.
We have been talking about international issues, but when you look at domestic issues when you look at Canada, a major portion of Canada lies in the Arctic. This portion of the Arctic also holds lots of indigenous communities. With the warming Arctic, their livelihood and lifestyle become extremely vulnerable. The use of snow scooters becomes tough when there is no ice, and they cannot migrate between communities nor they can travel out on the ice for hunting and fishing. Domestically, leaving aside the international aspect, people living in Canada, or people living in the Alaskan side of the Arctic or Greenland, or even in Russia, face such issues.
There is one major issue with climate change and marine pollution, which is the oil spill. This can start a war between countries. When oil spill-related accidents or fire like accidents take place in Arctic waters, oil spills and resulting marine fires can result in a lot of marine animal deaths, ecosystem imbalance and marine pollution.
Interviewer: The U.S. Geological Survey says that the Arctic accounts for about 13% of undiscovered oil and 30% of undiscovered gas at the moment. Access and later, control of these resources would only allow countries to expand their economic (and financial) zone. Much of the hostility between nations lies in the difficulty to establish clear boundaries in the Arctic, resulting in disagreement over the ownership of the natural treasures within the area. Any thoughts on how this could be built? What are your thoughts on such countries gaining ownership of this region?
Dr. Vishnu Nandan: You cannot gain ownership of this region, like I said, when you think from the Antarctic perspective, it is a continent. There is a clear boundary there, however, in the case of the ocean, there is no boundary. The only boundary you can build there is through the ocean seabed. Every country has twelve nautical miles of radial authority, then they have close to twenty or twenty-four nautical miles of contiguous area, in case there is an accident.
Border issues make gaining ownership difficult. If you come across newspaper articles, you will see there is not much geopolitics regarding the ownership, but an exception is Svalbard, an island north of Norway and is governed by Norwegians. There is no restriction for anyone of any nationality to come and settle down in Svalbard. That being said, Svalbard is rich in coal. So, over the past many years, Russians used to have coal mining factories in Svalbard.
Interviewer: According to the New York Times reports, Russia has been militarizing the region, reviving cold-war era military bases along the northern coast, and modernizing the countries’ nuclear submarines all this while. Russia is undeniably the dominant power in the Arctic, could there be any repercussions in this matter?
Dr. Vishnu Nandan: By area, Russia owns a lot of the Arctic territory, but they are not a dominant power. Subjectively speaking, no country has a dominant power and it completely depends on what you are talking about. If you are talking about marine navigation, then Canada is a big power because ships navigate through the northwest passage. After all, that is the shortest and economically viable route between Europe and the Americas. Other than that, Russia does not seem to have an undeniable dominant force.
About repercussions, as I said before, the United States has a military base in North-East Greenland, in Franz Josef Land and the Kola Peninsula, Russia has several military establishments. With more climate warming, it becomes easier for countries to have more strategic military installations and entry points. Even China was recently talking about how they are ready to install a satellite receiver station in Greenland.
Interviewer: Do you think India’s interest in the Arctic Region can play a role in terms of formulating a new Arctic Policy for the Arctic Council (which can protect the Arctic environments even in the midst of facing the unpredictability of this region)?
Dr. Vishnu Nandan: According to me, India is merely an observer in the Arctic Council, just because of the fact that India has two stations in the Arctic (that is one reason). The other reason is that the Himalayas is considered to be the third pole, after the North and South poles. Changes in the Arctic can, directly and indirectly, affect Himalayan hydrology and the livelihood of millions of people along that area including Tibet, Nepal, and other North-eastern states.
But if you ask me if India will have a strong voice in the Arctic Council, my answer is NO. The main reason is demography. India is nowhere close to the Arctic. The only connection we have to the Arctic is the Himalayas, just because how changes in the Arctic has been affecting Himalayan climate.
Interviewer: In what ways do you think India can contribute to protect the pristine environment of the Arctic and also in terms of developing a two-way teleconnection in the climate extremes of both Arctic and lower latitude (Tropical Regions)?
Dr. Vishnu Nandan: Most of the research that has been done by Indians in the Arctic is connected to the teleconnections that affect the Himalayan climate, and how that invariably affects our Indian sub-continent weather and hydrology. From a security perspective, between India and Pakistan or between India and China, extreme weather affecting the Himalayas can have its impact on border security-related tensions between the two nations. The environment needs to be stable to avoid such situations and people need to know what is causing these climate conditions in the Himalayas. More than selling our brains, technology, and data to other countries, we could use the Arctic as a medium and source as to how changes in the Arctic is affecting us, to help people, understand the vitality of Arctic climate conditions.
One example that comes to me is, Cyclone Ockhi. Ockhi affected parts of India and Sri Lanka back in 2017. One of the main reasons for this cyclone was a rise in sea surface temperature in the Arabian sea. The temperature was much higher, warmer than expected, triggering the cyclone. One of the reasons why the sea surface temperature in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal increased was because of increased Arctic warming and its impact on ocean circulation and temperature. One must understand that this process takes time, and an overnight temperature rise in the Arctic will not affect us right away.
Cloud bursts, landslides, flash floods happening in India can draw back a source to the effect of warming of oceans. This warming up of mid-latitude oceans is one of the big side-effects of polar ocean warming.
Let us have some Climate 101.
Polar oceans are always cold, ideally speaking. Mid-latitude oceans are always warm. The ocean is circulating. The warm water rises and cold-water sinks. The cold water moves towards us in India, and warm water goes up and down to the polar oceans. When the polar oceans become warm, the temperature around coastal regions in Southern India also rises, increasing the frequency of cyclones. This is just one of the many reasons.
Interviewer: Do you think that people in lower latitudes are adequately aware about the present consequences of climate change in the Arctic and Himalayan environments? Are Young Indians and Academic Scholars appropriately aware of the potential threat to the Arctic both in the context of climate change and Geo-Politics of the region? Does the present curriculum in Indian System of Education serve justice to the vitality of this matter? (in the context of Polar /Himalayan science education)
Dr. Vishnu Nandan: The straight answer is NO. Apart from scientists who work in the Arctic and the Himalayas, our general public knows about the Arctic because it is on the World Map. My general understanding of how our people perceive the Arctic or the Himalayas is this. Adventurous people travel to these regions to be a part of ‘summiting’ history and put an Indian flag there. They also know that it is very cold. It is nobody’s fault. That is just how it is.
Young Indians do know about the Arctic, the Antarctic and Global Warming. Let us say you take a survey in your university, asking why Delhi is becoming increasingly warmer, and why the landslide in Uttarakhand happened, giving some keywords like Arctic and Antarctic. They would not relate the two, connecting the dots. This is how knowledge is restricted among us.
Conversing with Dr Nandan made it patently clear that the field of Geopolitics in the Arctic is a topic the 21st century will frequently touch upon. Climate change will soon be a medium providing platforms to bring reform to international security, global politics, and policy-making efforts. The irreversible changes and the permanent damage being caused by climate change to the environment makes the topic unavoidable. Although India does not share borders with the arctic, it has become increasingly obvious that there is a relationship between the Arctic atmosphere and the Indian climate.
The Arctic holds esteem importance in the context of climate change, and it frequently goes unnoticed. Governmental bodies and leaders in power must stop turning a blind eye to the problem that needs much attention. In this hour of need, as the planet heats up and melts the sea ice away, unity will keep us going. Working together as one and finding solutions.
Cover Image: News60
About the author: Neeraja Jyothikumar is a second-year student at Jindal School of International Affairs. Her interests include Climate Change Policies and Human Rights, predominantly Feminism.