For centuries it has been near impossible for ships to pass through the Northwest Passage in the Arctic Ocean due to its impassable sea ice, treacherous floating icebergs and perilous weather conditions. These expeditions were usually met with failure, if not death. Today, we face new perils — climate change. We live in a rapidly changing environment as a result of global warming and much of the Arctic ice has melted, creating the lure of a navigable passage for international trade, shortening distances between Europe, China and the rest of Asia. The route is still not completely clear and remains fraught with danger. Safe passage requires the use of an ice-breaking ship, costing a billion dollars. Various states have asserted sovereignty over parts of the Arctic, nevertheless they are often conflicting with other countries or the indigenous nations that reside on the lands. This also means that if any commercial ships were to pass through the waters and come into any danger, there is no sole jurisdiction’s whose responsibility it would be to conduct search and rescue operations.
Below the passage lies an Arctic OPEC. Trillions of cubic volumes of natural gas and oil lay beneath the territorial disputed lands and waters, believed to be containing as much as a quarter of the worlds oil and gas reserves. The interested parties staking a claim within these wealthy waters are Russia, USA, Canada, Denmark, and other Arctic circle countries. However, this scrabble for land grabbing has been happening at a glacial pace, intertwined in academics and more cordial discussions than western media lets on. Despite Russia’s usually aggressive stance in foreign policy, (which has only been further exaggerated through western media), it has been extremely cooperative in comparison in Arctic affairs. Its slowly diminishing and souring relations with the West through the Ukraine crisis and its all too friendly dealings with Assad are completely contradictory with the cooperative and congenial relations it has built with the permanent seats amongst the Arctic circle, to collectively find peaceful resolutions for the territorial disputes. Despite Russia’s amicable demeanor in regards to the Arctic, its interest is economic. In August 2015, Russia formally staked a claim for over 463,000 square miles of Arctic territory at the United Nations, extending more than 350 nautical miles. This is the much needed lifeblood for Putin’s stagnating economy. Russia’s stake is about 41% of the oil and 70% of the gas reserves located in the area north of the Arctic circle.
Regardless of territorial disputes, natural resources or trade routes, any solution which leads to extraction of resources, or increased sea traffic is undermining efforts to find renewable energy and reduce climate change. Climate change is the number one threat to the Earth’s security. The United State’s has adopted an almost satirical and paradoxical approach to the Arctic disputes. It dictates to the world that its interests are leading efforts to protect the environment, but realistically its efforts are naturally Machiavellian. Its concerns are twofold; to secure the homeland from new routes and passages of terrorism, and placing sovereignty on economically strategically resources.
Canada’s interest in the Arctic, relative to Russia’s and the USA’s however seems to be more multifaceted. Harper’s stance against U.S. pressure from these disputes was strong and resistant. It has even included a complete identity change for Canada along the lines of ‘Our North, Our Heritage’ or ‘True North strong and free’. It still remains to be seen what Trudeau’s position shall be in the Arctic, yet what is clear is that any decision must be based on stewardship and sustainability, protecting the Arctic from any man-made climate changes. In 1970 Pierre Trudeau introduced the powerful Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act. This legislation enabled the Canadian government to assert jurisdiction within 100 miles offshore for the purposes of pollution control. Trudeau’s government must build upon his father’s legacy of protection and leadership over the Arctic.
The Arctic’s cool blanket of ice and permafrost remains the greatest protection against global warming. Canada must lead the fight for environmental conservation in the north and become a dominant global force in protecting its interest in such a region, opposing global polluters. The Arctic’s ecosystem is fragile, and is home to indigenous nations and species to Canada, all of whom need our protection and bear no fault of their own for climate change that we created. That burden rests on us, and us alone. The Arctic Circles deliberations must cooperatively find a solution that will spread the burden of protection, and limit further developments in the region until collaborative and sufficient research has been taken into account about the Arctic’s climate, trends and forecasts. We shall unite and lead the way to finding solutions that benefit the world, not preserve parochial interests.
Written By: Sonia Takhar
Sonia completed her Bachelors in Politics and Economics at UBC. Sonia specialises in development policy and progressive development research. She hopes to make an impact especially in gender inequality in the third world and is passionate about social change and poverty alleviation.