Climate Change

Anxiety, angst and anger in the High Arctic

As world powers race to extract the wealth of the melting Far North, the devastating impact on its ecology and indigenous peoples requires a perfect balance to ensure their survival

By Nalin Kumar Mohapatra
Published: Monday 08 July 2019
A Sami family in front of their 'laavu' or traditional tent in Lapland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A Sami family in front of their 'laavu' or traditional tent in Lapland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons A Sami family in front of their 'laavu' or traditional tent in Lapland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Over the years, the Northern Sea Route (NSR) has become an important 'strategic corridor' for connecting the once-isolated Arctic region with the centre of global geopolitics, namely, Asia and Europe. However the significance of the NSR also depends partly on climatic conditions which facilitate the melting of ice along with the use of ice breakers.

Along with strategic routes, all the littoral states (of the Arctic Ocean) are competing with each other for huge deposits of natural resources, which, in turn, accentuates the geopolitical vulnerability of this region.

However the melting of the ice because of climate change has also produced its own vulnerability, which, in turn, affects the local ecosystem along with the indigenous inhabitants.


While there is a great deal of rumbling in the energy market over the fluctuation in international oil prices, another interesting development took place in the month of May 2019 in the Arctic part of Russia. Moscow launched 'atomic ice breakers'  to consolidate Russia’s dominance on the NSR, which passes through the Arctic Ocean. Though these two simultaneous developments are not related to each other, for strategic analysts, these trajectories have tremendous impact on global geopolitics. 

However, a question that needs to be highlighted here is how far is climatic change going to have an impact on the indigenous population, along with the flora and fauna that, in the long–run, would prove catastrophic for the Arctic ecosystem? Directly or indirectly, climatic conditions are going to have an impact on the strategic framework of the NSR.

This factor, along with regulating the activities of various state- and non-state actors, will provide the basis to study the NSR, which has been getting much attention from the academic community in recent years.

It has been observed by various academics and scholars that the land and maritime water bodies will play a lesser role because of globalisation and advancement of communication technologies. However this view is partially true.

Physical geography is still playing a catalytic role in shaping the connectivity among various regions. The  phrase 'Climate Geopolitics (see also Simon Dalby, “Climate geopolitics: Securing the global economy”, International Politics, Volume 52, Issue 4, July 2015, pp 426–444) highlights the fact that climatic conditions will have a major impact on the environment and this, in turn, will perpetuate geopolitical conflicts in different parts of the world which include the Arctic region.

Various scientific studies show that because of changes in climatic conditions, the NSR will face some major challenges which include its opening up for navigation purposes. That is going to have a serious impact on human ecology, but at the same time, as has been argued, new trade routes will be opened up.

This is the moot question that academic research concerning the NSR has come up with, in recent years: Will NSR be a successful venture in the long run?  

It has been observed that because of the opening of trade routes, what one expects is a rise in global maritime trade, a reduced dependence on existing sea lanes like the Suez Canal, along with lesser transportation costs, as well as the growing movement of ships.

The most interesting aspect of the NSR is that all the five seas of Russia are connected with it. This gives Russia a preponderant role in regulating the maritime activities of the NSR. Russian President Vladimir Putin understands the significance of this route to Russia’s strategic interests. "The key to the development of the Russian Arctic and the regions of the Far East will be the Northern Sea Route. By 2025, its cargo traffic will increase tenfold, to 80 million tonnes," he said in his address to the Federal Assembly in March 2018.

Nevertheless, the ambitious goal set up by the Russian President is going to have a deeper repercussion on the geostrategic map of this part of the world in the near future. Though this route is going to export a major chunk of its natural resources to the global market (which includes oil and gas), this might face stiff challenges from other big powers like the United States (US) and Canada.

Already, contesting claims over the NSR has heightened geopolitical rivalry between the US and Russia in recent years. Way back in 2013, the Russian government brought out a legislation titled Rules of navigation in the water area of the Northern Sea Route under which, the Russian government claimed: "Granting permission for the navigation of ships in the water area of the Northern Sea Route…is effected by the NSR Administration." (Page 2).

The harbour in Murmansk, Russia's major port on the Barents Sea. Photo: Getty ImagesTo further beef up its position, the Russian government has also enacted a new law under which the Russian atomic agency ROSATAM will be the new partner in managing the NSR. It may be recalled here that ROSATAM is operating 'nuclear ice breakers' (mentioned at the beginning of the this piece).

On the other hand, the US is objecting to Russia’s claims over the NSR entirely. As a recent Congressial Report in March 2019 stated: "A dispute over this issue [Northern Sea Route] could have implications not only for the Arctic, but for other parts of the world as well.” (Page 64 of the report)

This statement signifies Washington’s move to reclaim its predominant position in the world. Similarly, the US government claims that the Russian move is also obstructing its 'Freedom of Navigation' granted under 'the United Nations Law of the Sea' and claims it as 'an international waterway'.(Page 9)

The different interpretation to the Law of Sea is also heightening conflict between these two great powers. Strategic rivalry will be accentuated further in this region as the US is, of late, becoming a major oil-exporting country and it requires this route to export its energy surplus to the rising Indo-Pacific market.

This will perpetuate a perennial conflict between the two as Russia is also a major oil-exporting country. In this context, the opening up of this route will bring out numerous strategic issues to the forefront. The same point was also highlighted by the 'Department of Defense Arctic Strategy', which submitted its report to the US Congress in June 2019.

The report states: "The United States is an Arctic nation, with sovereign territory and maritime claims in the region. Its interests, include defending US sovereignty and the homeland, including through early warning and missile defense.” (Page 5 of the report)

This claim by the US is going to create a new form of 'security dilemma' between these two in this region. Moscow is also mulling to station air-defense missiles which will beef up its Northern Fleet. It may be recalled here that this Russian strategy of strengthening its defence forces can be traced back to 2014, when the Putin Administration planned to augment its presence in this region to deter other Arctic neighbours to carry out their activities in this region.   

One may recall here that it is not only Russia and the US which are fighting it out for controlling the NSR. Other littoral states like Norway, Canada, Sweden and Denmark are in a logjam with each other. However, it may be noted that substantial progress has been reached between Russia, Denmark and Norway to de-escalate the situation. This, in a way, is contributing to a new form of 'Cold Peace' in the region. 

What is interesting to note here is that China — which is engaged in a bitter 'trade war' with the US and is in close, strategic bonhomie with Russia — has also outlined its Arctic Policy in 2018. Going through the text of the white paper on China, one can get a sense that there is going to be a direct confrontation between China and the US over resources, along with controlling the NSR.

As a fallout to the white paper, recently, China and Russia signed an agreement relating to the development of Yamal LNG field along with their transportation. Over the years, Russia has also sought assistance from China regarding the deployment of atomic ice breakers along the NSR route

India in the Arctic

Though a late entrant to the Arctic and the NSR geopolitics, what one can underline here is that India is also cementing its place in the Arctic region. This is happening because of the strong bilateral relationship that India is developing with Russia. Over the years, Indian energy conglomerates have been making inroads into the Siberian and Far East energy sectors.

This is providing an opportunity for both countries to synergise their relationship to a new level. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the SCO Summit at Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, both sides agreed to augment their relationship in the field of energy in the Arctic region.

One may recall here that the proposed 'Chennai-Vladivostok maritime route' along with the joint declaration signed between the two countries in October 2018, emphasised on energy cooperation in the Arctic along with the Yamal LNG field

By putting its stakes in the energy fields of the Arctic region, India will get a direct connectivity to import from there through the Indo-Pacific corridor along the above- mentioned proposed route,

From the above narratives, one gets an insight into the nature of the geopolitical completion that is taking place along the NSR because of climatic change. However the real impact of climate change that one should notice in the NSR region is that it is heightening the vulnerability for social groups.

NSR and Anthropogenic Geopolitics

What is pertinent to mention here is that though NSR is providing new opportunities to various stakeholders, at the same time, it is also offering multi-faceted challenges in terms of its impact on the environment. This, in turn, will affect social groups and indigenous communities at large. 

A recent study (Christian Schröder and Nils Reimer, “ Environmental impact of exhaust emissions by Arctic shipping”, Ambio,Volume 46, Supplement 3,2017,  pp 400–409) demonstrates that because of ice in this route, ships often use excessive fuel, which has an impact on environmental quality. The study made a detailed analyses pattern of the movement of ships along with climatic impacts.

On the other hand, a study (Dmitry Yumashev, Karel van Hussen, Johan Gille, Gail Whiteman , “Towards a balanced view of Arctic shipping: estimating economic impacts of emissions from increased traffic on the Northern Sea Route”,  Climate Change, Vo.143, No1-.2, pp 143–155) by Dmitry Yumashev and Karel van Hussen, while it does not show an alarming picture for NSR in terms of climate change, it highlights that in the long-run, this might pose a threat to the ecology of the NSR region. This will happen only after 2030, when ice will start melting and there will be a quantum jump in the usages of this route. It has been observed that most of the impact to climatic conditions are emanating from oil industries located in this region and their transportation to the external market. 

The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programmewhich is a think tank operating under the Arctic Council, brought out a report titled AMAP Assessment ­Biological Effects of Contaminants on Arctic Wildlife & Fish in 2018, which gives a detailed note of the crisis threatening the Arctic Region. The study highlights that:

"Many of the chemicals found at elevated levels in the Arctic have also been associated with effects on animal and human health… [and] remain vulnerable to the potential detrimental effects associated with these chemicals." (Page 1)

Similarly, the United Nations, in one of its studies, highlights the linkages between developments taking place in the Arctic region, along with negative consequences on the ecology and the indigenous populations residing there. The report stresses on "recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights to land and sea and their right to free, prior and informed consent in matters affecting their lives."

UNESCO, in an interesting study titled Climate Change Adaptation: Traditional Knowledge of Indigenous Peoples Inhabiting the Arctic and Far North examines the systemic erosion of lifestyle of the indigenous people of the NSR, along with its impact on economic livelihood. The study explains certain glaring figures which definitely generates concerns about human-ecosystem interface in the NSR.

For instance, the study emphasises how the average temperature is increasing over the years by '1.6°C' while the temperature of other parts of the world increases by '0.6 to 0.7'(Page 7) This, the study says, will have an impact on the people's livelihood as there will be a loss of 'natural vegetation'.

It also examines how industrial activities in the NSR region are having an impact on the dislocation of community life.(Page 10)

Another important aspect that needs to be underlined here is that because of extractive industries, a large-scale influx of labourers is taking place in the NSR, which has been resented by the indigenous communities as a threat to their cultural survival.

In recent years, an organisation called Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) has been playing a catalytic role in bringing out the indigenous people onto a common platform. According to its website, RAIPON acts as an umbrella organisation for around "41 indigenous groups from the Russian Far East, Siberia and the Far North and works for the protection of the language, livelihood, climate and ecology of local indigenous people."

One comes across occasional protests from Russia's indigenous people. Recently, the Sami indigenous group living near the Arctic port of Murmansk, submitted a petition to the United Nations for protecting the land in and around it, which has been handed over to a hunting club. 

Similar such protests can be witnessed in the Komi Republic. The Komi people are protesting the shifting of garbage from Moscow to the republic which they think will have impact ecology of the republic. The Nenet Republic is also one of the worse-hit because of oil spills flowing into the Arctic Ocean and this is  posing a threat to the  livelihood of the local population.

Though there are several laxities in protecting the rights of the indigenous people, what one notices is that slow awareness is seeping in, among the various stakeholders of the NSR namely the Russian government as well as the local civil society groups, to protect the ecology and environment of this geopolitical space.

This can be inferred from a recent speech by Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, during his address to the 11th Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council held in May 2019. He stated: "The consolidation of the international community’s efforts to develop the Far North is the key to the success of the Arctic’s sustainable development."

One can get a sense about Russia’s approach to address the issue of climate change and sustainability of human life in the Arctic region through growing interface between international and national actors. This can ensure a significant contribution to the NSR’s ecology.


One cannot deny the fact that energy is going to play an important role in securing human lives. Despite different projections about renewable energy, it cannot replace conventional energy like oil and gas for the time being. It is in this context that the significance of the Arctic along with the NSR are to be studied.

In the coming years, all the littoral Arctic states are going to have their stakes in the oil resources of this region and the faster melting of ice will only accentuate the geopolitical rivalry among them. At the same time,  the opening up of the NSR and stakes by various powers like the US and Canada will be resented by Russia.

Moscow is trying to rope in Beijing to checkmate Washington’s grand design in this region. The deployment of nuclear arsenals, along with atomic ice breakers by both parties will further accentuate the crisis. However, the worst sufferer in the rush for global oil is human ecology.

As discussed above, what one witnesses in the NSR is the devastating impact on human ecology because of excessive industrial activities in the region. The irony of the NSR is that climatic conditions are aggravating the ecological crisis. One important aspect that needs to be highlighted is that a balanced approach is needed to address the issue of industrialisation, along with protecting ecology in the Arctic region and the NSR.

The author teaches in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.