Markos Kounalakis: Warm water, cold reality, new frontier for exploiting resources

Big-screen “Noah,” the box office hit, presents the Biblical story of near apocalypse and indifference to God’s warnings. Small-screen NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, regularly warns of impending man-made environmental doom on its website.

Whether one is more susceptible to religious parables or scientific findings, the very real effects of contemporary climate change are happening at a stunning pace.

If melting ice caps and shifting weather patterns are not enough of a fearful sign, then a recent United Nations report tells us that countries are not doing enough alone or together to head off impending danger. As with all good stories, however, the U.N. study includes a promise of salvation and a path to redemption: Reversing climate trends is achievable, if not guaranteed.

What does seem guaranteed is that rising sea levels will force some Pacific islanders in Kiribati or the Maldives to flee on their own modern arks. The displacement of people and flooding of cities is a tale regularly told and an expected effect of global warming.

But what also seems guaranteed amidst the gloom and doom is a dramatic change in maritime and foreign policies. For many worldwide strategic planners, the Alaska state motto is their new mantra: “North to the Future!”

The receding permafrost in such places as Denmark’s Greenland is creating new arable land. Parts of a melting Arctic Ocean are going from an impenetrably frozen mass to a slushy soup and, eventually, to a navigable watery naval passage. Natural resources – whether hydrocarbons, fisheries, diamonds or other minerals – that have long been locked up and iced under, are suddenly more affordable to extract and exploit.

The rest of the story is easy to guess. There will be competition for these resources, claims to control passage, and political shifts for people and places sitting on newly habitable territories – all stressing the fragile ecosystem.

In fact, the competition is already well underway and the players are not only Arctic Council members – mainly Arctic states Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States – who have long claims in the region. China, for example, clearly recognizes the strategic importance of shorter commercial transit routes, untapped fisheries, energy drilling and new military naval channels.

As my colleague, retired U.S. Navy Adm. Gary Roughead, put it to a World Affairs Council audience last summer, the “opening of the ocean (is) the most significant event that’s happened since the last Ice Age.”

Roughead leads the Arctic Security Initiative at the Hoover Institution. His co-chair, retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. David Slayton, last month wrote that Washington needs to “seriously consider the economic potential and security vulnerabilities that exist on or near the U.S. Arctic coastline.”

What are those vulnerabilities? In light of Russia’s capture of the Crimea and its Sevastopol warm-water port, there is no mistaking her need for naval bases with open-sea access.

With a well-developed Arctic plan and the world’s largest icebreaker fleet, Russia is well-positioned to leverage her coastline and continental shelf while the United States’ policies instead focus more on Arctic environmental preservation and protection.

The disparity in priorities and resources is dispiriting, in particular as Russia, following its recent aggression, pushes the United States farther away from collaborating on the world stage and protecting the global commons.

While greater Arctic maritime security is called for to make sure the true benefits of piracy-free, shorter transit routes are enjoyed by commercial vessels engaged in trade and supply, this newly freed ocean will also be home to a new energy boom.

At the 2014 Arctic Oil and Gas Summit in Norway, organizers spelled out an opportunity to drill for “an estimated 44 billion barrels of oil under the melting glaciers of the Arctic Ocean.” About a third of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas are estimated to be in the Arctic.

That northern, meagerly populated outpost is an oil explorer’s dream compared to places like Iraq. In Greenland, there is relatively no political risk. The pressure for exploration is already building.

The irony is that burning fossil fuels contributes to new energy exploration. More melt means potentially more fuel to burn. A vicious cycle if ever there was. And those best positioned to benefit today are the Russians.

Russia is about to get new, more tepid waters, improved Arctic naval advantage and increased mineral wealth. And the new power position will arrive, again, without the Russians firing a shot, but as a result of the rest of the world firing pistons.