A Polar-Centric Approach to Understanding the Arctic Climate Crisis vis-à-vis Global Politics and Commerce
Much of the prevalent discourse on environment, resource economy, climate change etc. has been focused on the polar regions to a great extent. Yet most of these discursive exercises focus more on these phenomena than the region itself. The region with its peculiar geographical features and characteristics affects the global political, economic, commercial and environmental scenarios more than these scenarios impacting the region. This article tries to employ a polar-centric geographical approach in building an understanding of the various phenomena of politics, environment, commerce etc. concerning the region while addressing the ramifications of climate crisis in the region.
Beginning with an Understanding of the Polar Region
Before getting into the politics of this region it makes sense to understand its geography which in turn will outline its economics- the domain in which the political players make their bidding. A diverse region with extreme climatic conditions is usually not an economically viable option.
Law of the Sea
It is also important to understand the concept of Continental Shelf to understand the international laws which govern the seas. This unlike the other two concepts mentioned above is a geographical concept and refers to the geologic structure of the continental masses beneath the sea level. It is the most important concept to be discussed here as it could easily become the basis of a conflict. The region lying in a continental shelf is shallower and is ideal for resource extraction. Mumbai High offshore oil field located at 160 km from the west coast of Mumbai in the Arabian sea is one such example.
“The continental shelf of a coastal State comprises the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured where the outer edge of the continental margin does not extend up to that distance." – Article 76, UNCLOS – Part VI
The Cause of Conflict in the Arctic Region
What has been more significant is the entry of China in this scheme of things. In 2016 a Chinese mining company tried to buy an abandoned naval base in Greenland and a Chinese icebreaker ship (a ship which necessarily accompanies every commercial or non-commercial ship to break the surface ice and make way for the ship it accompanies) sailed through the Northwest Passage (See Figure 7). China even claims a seat in the polar decision-making body (the Arctic Council) calling itself a ‘Near-Arctic Country’ and is also an observer member of the same.
The Emerging Routes
Something more concerning than the resource exploration in such a sensitive region is the increased traffic. China has been at the centre of this issue for many reasons. Besides its growing influence over the South China Sea and the One Road initiative, the Arctic Route is equally crucial for China. In 2017 Chinese icebreakers explored the Northwest Sea Route (Figure 7) and in 2018 published a white paper describing it as an ‘Ice Silk Road’. China’s strong ties with Russia further escalate the concern. Russia has the largest fleet of icebreakers (essential for navigating through the Arctic)- 40 currently active and over 10 in the making and is the only country to construct and own nuclear-powered icebreakers while China is fast catching up. The US on the other hand just has one.