VIDEO: Can Climate Change Undermine Nuclear Deterrence?

Some experts are concerned that tensions over water, territory, and other issues may increase nuclear detonation risks in regions like South Asia. An Indian Agni-II intermediate range ballistic missile on a road-mobile launcher, January 26, 2004. Antônio Milena (ABr)

By Natasha E. Bajema, Ph.D.

Maybe. It’s Complicated.

The Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) posed a series of questions about the Arctic region to four leading national security experts with different perspectives in a recent video interview below. Together, their diverse answers may help us to better understand the complex linkages across climate change, Arctic sea melt and new sea routes, prospects for conflict, competition, and cooperation within the global order, and new risks associated with nuclear weapons.

Over the past thirty years, the Arctic has warmed at roughly twice the global rate, causing floating sea ice to melt, glaciers to recede, and permafrost to thaw among other devastating effects. Though the region has always been important to countries bordering the region such as Russia, Canada, and the United States, it has gained in its geopolitical importance for many more countries and become a potential source of conflict in the future. Scientists predict that the Arctic region may become completely ice-free during the summer seasons by 2050, possibly even sooner.

Arctic sea melt will enable greater access to fisheries, minerals, and petroleum resources as well as lead to a significant rise in tourism and global trade across the region. As the Northern Sea Route begins to open, global transit companies will see a major reduction in the length of their voyages and thus a reduced cost of sea freight. The increase in transportation and human activity in the region is likely to generate much economic growth, but it will also result in serious ecological consequences for the region and an increased potential for international conflict.

As the sea melt increases Arctic ambitions, major powers such as the United States, Russia, and China and even rising powers may attempt to claim portions of what still constitutes a disputed territory. Already, there are a number disagreements about the validity of national claims to the region. For example, Russia appears to be seeking unilateral control over the Northern Sea Route along its coastline by deploying military assets at major bottlenecks.

Since great power relationships have tended to be more conflictual than cooperative in recent years, growing tensions in the Arctic could become a new catalyst for conflict. Thus far, relevant multilateral institutions do not appear well-positioned to resolve who should control, tariff, and manage the passages of ships through the region. Both the Arctic Council and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea may become increasingly embroiled in conflict as disputes continue to deepen. Conflicts between nuclear powers and competition for control over the region are likely to destabilize the global order, putting more pressure on the fabric of the nuclear order.

Click here to watch the video.


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