Melting Arctic a U.S. concern

Brookings Institution expert says nation needs to act aggressively to combat climate change



Charles Ebinger, director of the Brooking Institution’s Energy Security Initiative, speaks Wednesday at Greenspun Hall Auditorium about the melting of the Arctic.

Fri, Oct 16, 2009 (2 a.m.)

Beyond the Sun

In glum terms, an expert on Arctic politics told an audience at UNLV this week that if nothing is done to combat climate change, the United States could be thrown into an epic battle for Arctic supremacy.

With the Arctic — the ice mass at the top of the world that separates Russia from Alaska, Greenland and Canada — melting at a rapid pace, its usually frozen waterways are opening up and sea levels are rising. This could expose the U.S. to a variety of problems, from oil wars to fights over territory to the inundation of dozens of major American coastal cities, said Charles Ebinger, director of the Brookings Institution’s Energy Security Initiative.

The melting of the Arctic ice cap could mean the submersion of entire countries and the relocation of tens of millions of people, including residents of American islands and territories who are vulnerable to the rising sea.

Because of Nevada’s untapped renewable energy potential, the state could play a role in the solution, Ebinger said before the talk. If adequate transmission infrastructure can be built, secure, emission-free electricity could replace the polluting power sources of millions of Americans, reducing the output of greenhouse gases and slowing climate change.

Do nothing and the consequences for everyone could be dire, he told an audience of students and academics Wednesday evening. The ice pack has shrunk nearly 80 percent since the 1980s, causing ocean temperatures to change. That could destroy the Gulf Stream and the stability of key allies such as Great Britain, which depend on it for its temperate climate.

At the same time, rising seas would flood islands from Hawaii to the Azores, threatening people, wildlife and even strategic military bases.

The government of Maldives, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean that is expected to be the first lost to rising water, is one of the few that is acting on the threat, Ebinger said. This year it embarked on a land purchasing junket in India in preparation for rising water.

India, meanwhile, is building a wall to protect its borders from the millions of Southeast Asians expected to lose their homes to rising seas, Ebinger said. And as the Himalayan glaciers melt, India is threatening war with China over access to water, he said. The two countries’ nuclear arsenals just add one more layer of concern.

In the Arctic, sea routes are opening up for longer periods of time and the region is expected to have ice-free summers by 2015, which would strain military, border patrol, and search and rescue resources.

It could also mean a battle for fish: As fish move northward with the warming seas, fishing operations are looking for new international fishing grounds.

Energy companies are queuing up, too. They think massive oil and gas reserves lie below the Arctic and as more ice melts and deep sea oil extraction technology advances, drilling in the Arctic will become more likely.

That’s leading to scrabbles over Arctic territory, Ebinger said. The Arctic 5 — the U.S., Russia, Canada, Norway and Greenland/Denmark — expect to retain control over the region. But they’re arguing over a few islands and straits that have opened up in recent years. Russia and Norway are harassing each other with military jets across the region over territorial disputes. And Russia and the U.S. have agreed to disagree with Canada over whether the Northwest Passage, the sea route between Canada’s northernmost islands, is open sea or part of Canada’s territorial waters.

Some nations believe the Arctic should be opened for anyone to claim; others contend the Arctic is so ecologically special it should be protected from everyone.

The Arctic 5 are powerful and appear to have the strongest claim in the area. But the U.S. seems the least invested. The four other Arctic nations signed onto the United Nations 1982 Law of the Seas Convention — a treaty that, among other things, would allow the Arctic to be split among the countries by an independent organization based on the locations of their continental shelves. The Senate has not adopted the treaty because of fears of some senators that the U.S. would not get as much territory as it deserves, Ebinger said.

“The real absurdity is that while the Senate dithers, other nations are rushing in to snatch up areas that could be ours,” he said.

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