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A Case for Climate Security in the Arctic Council Agenda

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By Diane French: 

Climate change in the Arctic is pushing—indeed, demanding—a reframing of modern security. Security in the twenty-first century can no longer be adequately viewed through a unilaterally military lens, but must incorporate non-conventional environmental and human security components as well. In the Arctic, military concerns of newly melted navigational channels and now exposed natural resources in international waters go hand-in-hand with oil spills and overfishing, rising sea levels and increased demands on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and search-and-rescue operations.

To confront both climate change and security in the Arctic, the international community must address the triad of military, environmental, and human components of climate security. Yet the Arctic Council—the most active Arctic intergovernmental forum, and the only one including all eight Artic nations (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States)—explicitly excludes issues of security from its mandate. At the time, the omission was a prerequisite for the membership of the United States and Russia, both opposed to surrendering national security interests to a fledgling international organization. Yet this April, as the United States begins its two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council, there will exist an opportunity to introduce climate security into the agenda of the organization most equipped to address it.

By adding climate security to the Arctic Council’s agenda in 2015, the organization—with the United States at its head—could signal a global shift away from traditional military deterrence strategy towards consensus-based pre-emptive peacebuilding. With an existing role in environmental and human protection in the region and an existing relationship with military forces, particularly with national coast guards, the Arctic Council provides the most logical forum for addressing all three aspects of Arctic security. Centering climate security in a circumpolar, inclusive institution rather than a defensive, strategically aligned one would allow for an introduction of these critical topics without tainting the issue with excessive militarization. 

To hive off and assign military components of Arctic security to a separate body would be counterproductive given the inherent interconnectedness of human, environmental, and military security in the region. Proposals such as transferring the entire three-pronged Arctic security agenda to NATO, however, would risk stifling the cooperation, coordination, and communication that Arctic climate concerns demand. The absence of major powers like Russia and the lack of alliance consensus, which have hindered NATO activities in the past, could become roadblocks to Arctic security decision-making. Alternatively, bringing human and environmental issues into an already heavily militarized body, such as the proposed Arctic Coast Guard Forum or Arctic Security Forces Roundtable, could lead to institutional redundancies, mission creep, and overt militarization.

The weight of the Arctic Council as a non-military, intergovernmental forum anchors it firmly outside the realm of military securitization. Furthermore, with inclusive circumpolar membership of all eight Arctic nations, an array of indigenous organizations serving as permanent participants, and twelve permanent observer states from around the globe, the Arctic Council provides suitably broad and cohesive representation in a forum designed as a collaborative, consensus-building environment, rather than a strict, decision-making body.

The Council also has a history of negotiating successful binding agreements, such as the 2011 Arctic Search-and-Rescue Agreement, which coordinates international SAR operations and responsibilities for member states, and the 2013 Arctic Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response Agreement, which sets guidelines among countries for notification, communication, and reaction to oil spills.Such agreements provide the Council with a proven history and track record of cooperation and allow it to function as a confidence-building mechanism in a region where uncertainties around resources and legal regimes exist. By moving beyond oil spills and search-and-rescue operations to address the broader notion of climate security, the Artic Council could both strengthen its adaptation capacity and bolster its position as a positive forum for discussion and decision-making in the region.

As the United States assumes the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in April, it could use the next two years to push for expanding the remit of the organization. Given the upcoming role of the United States in the Arctic Council from 2015 to 2017 and the forthcoming 20th anniversary of the Council in 2016, the United States could take several broad steps toward the overall goal of including security in the Arctic Council agenda. These steps could include establishing climate security as the overarching theme of Secretary of State Kerry’s chairmanship, hosting a 20th anniversary summit in 2016 with an Arctic security theme, or creating a Special Working Group on Climate Security within the Council.

Fully addressing Arctic climate security will require this type of strong leadership. In order to protect its resource and territorial interests, the United States could more actively engage in conversation over disputed Arctic resources by pushing for ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and could safeguard its human and physical capital by investing in capabilities infrastructure, such as icebreaker ships and an Arctic-wide communications network. Environmental targets for this strategy could include enhanced oil spill prevention and response as well as protection for fragile Arctic fisheries and wildlife, including moratoriums on both drilling and fishing, if necessary. Finally, goals for maintaining human security could include measurements of coastal vulnerability and opportunities for increased climate resilience, as well as improved training and coordination for humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and search-and-rescue operations. 

Together, addressing climate change in the Arctic will require the entire Arctic Council, under the chairmanship of the United States, to expand its existing mandate. Only by including all three aspects of climate security—military, environmental, and human—will the Council be equipped to respond to the region’s evolving demands and prepare it for the challenges of the decades ahead.

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