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Climate Change and Security in the Arctic

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Climate Change and Security in the Arctic

Washington DC, January 27, 2021 — A new report by the Center for Climate and Security (CCS), an Institute of the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR), together with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), assesses the growing security risks posed by a warming climate in one of the most rapidly changing regions on Earth: the Arctic. The report concludes that the risks posed by uncurbed warming include the potential for new conflicts, the breakdown of multilateral cooperation, and rising great power tensions. The analysis looks at two future warming scenarios (curbed and uncurbed) to project security threats alongside potential environmental changes deemed likely in the High North by 2030.

The analysis identifies a number of key Arctic climate security risks across both warming scenarios, but notes that the risks are more severe and more likely in an “uncurbed” warming scenario. In a “curbed” scenario in which the world takes rapid action to curb climate change, including by transforming energy use, decarbonizing the global economy, and building international institutions to manage climate risks, the Arctic is likely to see fewer opportunities for severe security risks. The report recommends integrating this climate risk analysis into Arctic planning strategies into the coming years, and avoiding the uncurbed warming scenario.

Specifically, the analysis highlights five key findings:

  1. A warmer and increasingly navigable Arctic will lead to more commercial, civilian, and military activity, rendering the region more prone to accidents and misunderstandings between major players.
  2. Increased commercial activity significantly expands the likelihood of states like Russia and China using civilian and commercial actors as vehicles for strategic positioning, dual-use data collection, and for gray zone operations which may escalate to direct confrontation.
  3. The institutions that have helped depoliticize and produce stability in the Arctic for several decades may not have sufficient mandates and authorities, or be resilient enough to withstand new demands resulting from climate change.
  4. To manage a more complex operating environment in the Arctic, with ever more state and non-state actors, governments will need an integrated toolbox that includes legal, economic, diplomatic, and military instruments. Robust mechanisms for cooperation and communication with civilian and commercial actors will be particularly useful.
  5. States are likely to place higher demands on their military forces in the Arctic, particularly as regards to monitoring, assertions of sovereignty, search and rescue, and other Coast Guard duties given higher levels of overall activity in the region. New climatic realities may also reduce the constraints for force projection in the region. At the same time, over-reliance on military approaches in the region could risk escalating conflicts.

To build resilience to the above threats, the report recommends that allied Arctic nations begin to advance the elaboration of a “Military Code of Conduct for Arctic Forces,” or other form of renewed dialogue among regional security actors, to address joint security risks.

Highlighting the findings of the report, its authors stated:

“The Arctic is a critical region where the consequences of climate change could quickly multiply into a host of other severe security risks: dangerous conditions, potential for accidents, gray zone warfare, and even great power conflict. We need to  increase the capacity of institutions in the region to moderate growing tensions,  reduce the risks of increasing climate and political instability, and reign in global emissions to prevent further escalation.”
– Hon. Sherri Goodman, Senior Strategist and Advisory Board Member, Center for Climate and Security; Former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Environmental Security), U.S. Department of Defense

“It’s clear from this analysis that while relations in the Arctic are already quite tense, further climate change will only make the security situation more dire. On the other hand, global cooperation towards global net zero commitments and addressing climate security risks through new institutions could have immense benefit for ensuring peace and security in the region and between major powers.”
– Kate Guy, Senior Research Fellow, Center for Climate and Security

“The difference between a low or high emissions scenario will be the difference between a changed world to which states can adapt or a world in which states are continuously scrambling to keep up with escalating and destabilizing change, and potentially losing legitimacy in the process. Climate change– in the Arctic and elsewhere– poses unprecedented risk but also unprecedented opportunity for international collaboration on a shared security concern.”
– Marisol Maddox, Research Fellow, Center for Climate and Security

“Climate changes introduce a broader range of risks in the Arctic, which add to the military risks that are already there. Existing institutional frameworks, and policy responses need to be expanded and adapted to this new reality.”
– Ole Jacob Sending, Research Director, Norwegian Institute for International Affairs

Read the full report: Here

Direct inquiries to: Francesco Femia, ffemia at climateandsecurity dot org, WhatsApp: +1-571-263-5691

More resources: The Center for Climate and Security Publications Page


The Center for Climate and Security is an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks.

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