Hoppa yfir valmynd
Ministry for Foreign Affairs

The Foreign Policy Implications of Arctic Warming



A Statement by Ambassador Gunnar Pálsson

Director of the Department
of Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs

Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Iceland


A Workshop on Arctic Warming

Sponsored by the Office of External Research, Bureau of Intelligence and Research
U.S. Department of State and National Intelligence Council

Washington, 27 January 2005

There can be little doubt that climate change is moving up the foreign policy agenda. Judging by most reports, it is a major challenge of our times, threatening serious repercussions for nature and man alike. Most recently, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), released by the Arctic Council in November, has brought new vigour to the debate.

The contribution of the ACIA

Because the ACIA is so frequently cited as an authoritative study of Arctic climate change, it is particularly important to have an accurate view of what the ACIA does and does not seek to accomplish. The ACIA does, for example, include long-range projections of future developments based on a selection and synthesis of complex scientific models. But the ACIA does not predict the future, excepting, perhaps, its one indisputable claim that the future will have surprises in store for us.

The ACIA science report was followed by policy recommendations, set out by Ministers in the Arctic Council. However, the science report itself does not, through some ineluctable process of deductive reasoning, lead to certain policy conclusions. As a rule, natural scientists do not presume to know the best way to address the difficult choices their findings may present to the policy-maker. Similarly, any statesman in his right mind will think twice before passing himself off as a scientist, conscious of the sometimes deplorable consequences the confusion of the two roles has brought about in the course of human events.

The failure to observe these distinctions goes a long way towards explaining the hectoring attitudes frequently observed at international climate change conferences vis-á-vis individual governments.

Notwithstanding such caveats, it would be unwise not take seriously the potential implications of a study as well researched and comprehensive as the ACIA. Therefore, let me attempt to outline some of those implications, including foreign policy ones, for Iceland, the only Arctic Council member state with all of its territory in the Arctic.

Iceland´s resource-based economy

Let me first provide some background. Iceland used to be one of the poorest countries in the world, ravaged by famines and natural disasters of different kinds. In the eighteenth century, its population dipped a couple of times below 40,000. Today, Iceland enjoys a high standard of living and has a population fast approaching 300.000.

What is the secret behind this Cindarella story of the Icelanders? Abundant natural resources, mainly renewable energy and living marine resources, are a part of the answer. However, while the resources were always there, the technology and production methods needed to use them were not. Starting with the twentieth century, the willingness of Icelanders to adopt new technologies for exploiting natural resources has been key to their transition from rags to riches.

The ice giving Iceland its name now supplies a stable source of water feeding the rivers that drive the country´s hydroelectric power plants. Subterrenean forces have been harnessed in the form of geothermal energy. Practically all of Iceland´s electricity and space heat needs are today met with hydro- and geothermal power.

Through technology, the resources of the ocean have been similarly unlocked. With better fishing vessels and increased possibilities for foreign trade Icelanders have been able to capitalize on the fertile fishing grounds surrounding the island. Today, fishing and fish processing account for more than 62% of Iceland´s export of goods.

But the ocean also performs other important services. Marine transport and communications have shaped the destiny of Icelanders from the earliest times, ever since advances in ship-making and the art of navigation contributed to the settlement of Iceland in the ninth century.

Therefore, any implications of Arctic climate change in the three areas that I have mentioned, would not so much be an issue of ecology as an issue affecting the economic underpinnings of Iceland´s way of life.

Energy and fisheries

As it turns out, the ACIA´s key findings would seem to have a bearing on all three areas, energy, fisheries and marine transport.

The findings project continued rapid warming in the Arctic, melting glaciers, increased precipitation and substantial decrease in snow and ice cover. Typical questions weighing on an Icelander in this connection are: How would the gradual disappearance of Iceland´s glaciers affect the productivity of its major hydro-electric power plants? Would the loss of glacial melt to some extent be compensated by the projected increase in precipitation?

According to another key finding of the ACIA, the diversity, ranges and distribution of animal species will change, with some Arctic marine fisheries likely to become more productive. In this respect, an Icelander would be particularly curious to know more about the possible effect of rising ocean temperature on the size and distribution of fish stocks. Will the warming of Icelandic oceans make economically important species, like capelin, that prefer colder seas, head further North? Will other species, like blue fin tuna, in turn come closer to Icelandic waters?

At the moment, all such speculation is based on conjecture. There is evidence in Iceland pointing in the direction of the ACIA´s findings, but so far scientists are still missing too many of the variables necessary to project the likely impact of a warming Arctic climate on both our energy sector and fisheries.

It is this lacuna in our knowledge that leads me to my first conclusion. Arctic countries and communities, particularly those that depend on natural resources for their livelihood, need to both expand and intensify their ecological research. But there is a foreign policy dimension to this as well, because in order to co-ordinate this research effectively, governments need to co-operate and pool their resources. This should include a more integrated circumpolar system of observation and monitoring than we currently have.

Many activities in the area of Arctic research are ongoing or planned. The second International Conference on Arctic Research Planning (ICARP II), the Arctic Science Summit Week (ASSW), as well as the International Polar Year 2007 - 2008 (IPY) are only the most important examples. However, these are events organized by and large by the science and research communities themselves. One area where improvements are needed is in the science-policy interface, where politicians and scientists sometimes have difficulty in speaking the same language.

Marine transport

As was indicated earlier, the fortunes of an island nation like the Icelanders have always been interwoven with marine transport and communications. Again, if the key findings of the ACIA are to be believed, reduced sea ice is very likely to increase marine transport and access to resources.

This is an area where the Icelandic government has already begun to invest some effort. A working group set up by Iceland´s Foreign Ministry in the summer of 2003 has just completed a report on opportunities for Iceland in connection with increased shipping in the Arctic region.

In the view of the authors of the report, Iceland´s geographic position vis-á-vis new Arctic and transatlantic sea routes should in the decades to come enable Iceland to to play a significant role in the economic transformation of the Arctic region. Most importantly, Iceland could serve as a transshipment hub for services and goods to and from the Arctic, utilizing Iceland´s modern infrastructure and excellent harbour conditions. Owing to a host of interacting factors, including technological developments in ship-building, communications and navigation in sea ice, economic considerations and greater commercial pressure for the opening of new international sea routes, the realization of such an opportunity may not depend exclusively on the fulfillment of the ACIA´s most far reaching projections.

There is obviously an important foreign policy aspect here as well. Increased marine traffic will, as time goes by, affect all the states of the Arctic rim. For the time being, there is, nevertheless, no circumpolar forum where issues pertaining to the opening of the Arctic sea routes are being discussed in depth at the intergovernmental level. There have been workshops and expert meetings, but an attempt has yet to be been made to address comprhensively the complex aspects of this issue, be they political, legal, encironmental, logistical or commercial. This leads me to my second main conclusion: the time may be ripe to raise the profile of marine transport in circumpolar cooperation.

Wider implications

Assuming that a number, at least, of the chickens let loose by our ACIA scientists actually do come home to roost, there are bound to be wider foreign policy implications as well. At the same time, it would be a mistake to reduce Arctic foreign policy considerations to implications of Arctic warming. Over the past few years, we have seen the Arctic transformed from a theatre of military confrontation into a zone of co-operation. If Arctic states now have the space of maneuvre required to respond to the foreign policy implications of climate change, it is because a political thaw has already set the stage. Indeed, this may be one of those rare occasions where nature imitates art, if not the art of diplomacy.

Developments in the Arctic are opening up new dimensions in the foreign policies of the Arctic states. But the Arctic will remain a region of great significance from the point of view of national and international security. This aspect is likely to acquire more gravity, as more natural assets of the Arctic become accessible and a growing share of commercially valuable world cargo transits through the region.

The growing prominence of the Arctic in world affairs also invites the question of whether the institutional form of co-operation the Arctic states have set up among themselves is an adequate one. The question has at least two parts, one regarding scope, the other structure.

As to the sope of activities covered by the Arctic Council, the only intergovernmental high level circumpolar forum in existence, it would be wise to not try to encroach on the activities of competent international organizations. As the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will continue to be responsible for international shipping, so NATO, the NATO-Russia Council and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council will remain seized of issues of international security, to mention only two examples.

Turning to the question of structure, the point is often made that a permanent secretariat is needed in order for the Arctic Council to deal with the changes affecting the North effectively. A government bureaucrat worth his salt will naturally be inclined to think that the way to solve a particular problem is to set up a bureaucratic structure to deal with it. This may be one application of the famous law of the instrument: give a man a hammer and he will soon come around to the view that every little issue needs a pounding. In fact, however, the Arctic Council works quite well, given its constraints, as this bureaucrat learned during Iceland´s recent Icelandic chairmanship of the Council. Therefore, we should not assume that the best way to tackle the foreign policy issues arising in the Arctic is necessarily to throw at them institutional solutions.

What then, can be done to manage better the foreign policy implications of Arctic issues, including climate change? I will confine myself to two points. Firstly, there is homework to be done in raising the awareness of the Arctic within our own governments. Secondly, we need to continue mainstreaming Arctic issues within the relevant international organizations where our governments are active.

Meeting both of those requirements would serve the important objective of putting the Arctic in its proper foreign policy perspective, besides helping us with much needed bridge-building in the science-policy interface.

In sum, when considering the implications of Arctic warming, actual or hypothetical, it is necessary to dwell on the opportunities as well as the risks. As I pointed out earlier, Icelanders have long contended with harsh and demanding natural conditions. For us, the challenge is now, as in the eighteenth century, to overcome changing conditions by drawing on human resourcefulness. It is one instance of the ongoing project of modern times that Francis Bacon used to refer to as ?the conquest of nature for the relief of man´s estate?.


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