War over the Arctic? Global warming skeptics distract us from security risks.

Global warming skeptics must recognize that real -- not predicted -- climate change is already turning the Arctic into a potential military flash point. 

Skepticism about climate change is going mainstream, and that is worrying. One-third of Americans now say global warming doesn’t exist – triple the percentage of three years ago. 

This defiance of science isn’t just harmful for the environment. It’s also distracting us from growing threats to US national security. Actual – not theoretical – effects of climate change are turning the Arctic into a potential military flash point. 

Expected melting of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean means greatly expanded access to increasingly scarce fossil fuels. It also means tensions over Arctic real estate. What the Middle East was to the second half of the 20th century, the Arctic could be to the first half of the 21st. Because America has been so slow to wake up to climate change, it’s lagging behind in protecting its Arctic interests.

“Since 1995 we have lost 40 percent of the North Pole’s icecap,” said Professor Robert Huebert, of the University of Calgary and an adviser to the Canadian government. Mr. Huebert and other experts spoke at a recent conference on climate change security risks hosted by the Center for National Policy. “It is not a matter of if, but when, the ice will be gone,” he said.

Moscow gets this, even if the US public does not. “The Arctic must become Russia’s main strategic resource base,” Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian Security Council, declared last year. “It cannot be ruled out that the battle for raw materials will be waged by military means,” a Russian planning document has warned.

Partially because of years of climate change denial, “the United States remains largely asleep at the wheel,” according to a Foreign Affairs article last March by Scott Borgerson, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

Meanwhile, other Arctic nations are moving to muscularly stake their sovereignty claims while prospecting for hundreds of billions of dollars of treasure buried on the ocean floor up there. 

Major melting has spurred Russia, Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), and Norway into a new gold rush, except this time it’s about staking claim to huge reservoirs of natural gas, petroleum, and untold deposits of minerals previously inaccessible because of the polar ice shield. Much of the sub-sea Arctic wealth will of necessity be transported by ships because thawing tundra will be too unstable for pipelines. The South Koreans anticipated this more than a decade ago, building giant vessels to secure a big share of the shipping market.

The US and other Arctic nations are meeting this month to discuss Arctic sovereignty. Previous summits have included agreements to act responsibly and peacefully as the polar icecap recedes, but nearly all nations involved are rearming militarily to defend their sovereignty. “We are already in an Arctic arms race,” Huebert says. “The year 2010 in the Arctic is akin to 1935 in Europe.” Russia is building military bases on the Arctic coast and has 10,000 troops deployed near its northern border to assert its expanding claims.

Norway has in recent years bought five new supermodern Navy frigates with advanced Aegis weapons systems to defend its undersea claims. Denmark is also increasing military spending to support its polar position. 

Because of the vagueness of undersea borders, the US and Canada are also arguing about overlapping sovereignty claims with hundreds of billions in petro profits hanging in the balance. China has no polar border, yet it is building an advanced icebreaker to promote “scientific “and “commercial’ pursuits both in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

Former US Sen. Gary Hart is worried that the Arctic could become the new Fulda Gap, the cold-war fulcrum of potential battle in Germany, where the West feared Soviet divisions would pour into Western Europe. “We don’t need to start another cold war,” Mr. Hart said, “but we do need to determine Russia’s intent.” 

As the Arctic thaws and the Northwest Passage becomes a navigable strait for shipping, there could be seismic consequences. Under international law, the term “strait” also affords flyover rights to other countries. When the Northwest Passage becomes a regularly navigable strait, Russia could legally and perhaps provocatively send its warplanes into North American airspace, something it never would have done in the cold war. Canadian political experts claim the Russians are already becoming more assertive, bordering on aggressive. “If that’s the case, the Russians need to be stopped now,” Huebert said.

“Most Americans have no clue the United States is an Arctic nation,” said US Coast Guard Rear Adm. Gene Brooks. Such ignorance carries a heavy price. Yet broader public ignorance about climate change is the goal of some skeptics and deniers. It wasn’t that long ago when cigarette manufacturers told Congress that nicotine wasn’t addictive, or when Detroit’s auto moguls insisted that seat belts were a bad idea. Responsible dissent is one thing. But defiance of facts on the ground that imperil US national and energy security is quite another. Says Brooks: “The age of the Arctic is upon us.”

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.


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