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Washington DC Peace & Security Forum

Washington DC Forum: The Coming Arctic Boom and Polar Foreign Policy

Washington DC, USA - “The Coming Arctic Boom and Polar Foreign Policy” was the theme for the monthly forum hosted by the UPF Office of Peace and Security Affairs on April 30, 2014, at The Washington Times. Climate change and the warming of the Polar North have created melting in much of the Arctic, potentially allowing transportation and access to and from areas that 10 years ago was unthinkable. Although in the past, the Arctic represented a remote wilderness surrounded by an impassible body of frozen sea, the Arctic is rich in natural resources, including, according to estimates, 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of oil. The five coastal area nations including US, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark (Greenland) and the international community, together with major businesses and investors have every reason to get in on the ground floor, mindful of the necessity to protect the environment, and work the complexity of interests in a peaceful manner. Nations must find a way to balance the proper welfare of indigenous peoples, the needs of the environment, economic growth, national security concerns, and the well-being of humanity at large.

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Introduction: Climate change is playing an important role in opening up unexpected opportunities in the Arctic, especially as it relates to expediting shipping between Asia and Europe. Warming in the Arctic has increased at twice the global average since 1980, according to the UN Environment Program (UNEP), and as the region warms, melting ice is allowing greater access and the possibility of exploitation of natural resources such as oil and gas, minerals, fisheries, and increased tourism. Although it presents new economic opportunities, it also presents significant challenges including rising sea levels, effects on migratory species and essential habitat, and release of chemicals into the water and environment.

The Arctic is experiencing a major transformation, not seen in millions of years. Opportunities for economic development such as commercial shipping, mining, and oil and gas development are opening up, but with these activities comes cultural, social, and environmental risks.

Welcome by the Director: Dr. Antonio Betancourt explained the purpose of the UPF Office of Peace and Security Affairs (OPSA), as envisioned by the founders, Dr. and Mrs. Sun Myung Moon. Throughout their lifetime, the founders established numerous organizations and activities all with the underlying purpose and dedication to build a world of peace. In the development of the Arctic Region, Dr. Moon recognized humankind’s historical propensity to allow profitability to prevail over environmental responsibility. He declared that absolute, universal values must guide human endeavors, and in 2005, at the inauguration of the UPF, he proposed a visionary project with the potential to help bind the world together as one global village.

Although popularly known as a religious leader, Dr. Moon was trained as an electronic engineer so his approach to world peace has always combined the spiritual with the practical. He proposed building a passage for transit across the Bering Strait that separates the North American and Russian land-masses. He called it the “World Peace King Bridge-Tunnel,” and it would link an international highway system that will allow people to travel on land from Africa’s Cape of Good Hope to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina, and from London to New York, across the Bering Strait. 

Despite the various challenges and difficulties to such an undertaking, the co-founders feel the peaceful exploration and development of the Arctic region will advance and stimulate the building of a culture of peace and foster greater unity and understanding among the world’s people.

The Coming Arctic Boom and Polar Foreign Policy: In February, Secretary of State John Kerry described climate change as one of the world’s most serious problems and included it among poverty, terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. He called on all nations to respond to “the greatest challenge of our generation,” and announced a global conference with participation of government officials, scientists, industry, and environmentalists from more than 80 nations in Washington on June 16-17 to address three major threats to the sea — overfishing, marine pollution and ocean acidification.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, during a three-day visit to Greenland in March to see first-hand how the Arctic is being affected by rising temperatures and the impact of climate change, said: “The dangers of global warming cannot be ignored.” The UN Secretary-General will convene a climate summit September 23 in New York, a day before the UN General Assembly opens.

H.E. Peter Taksøe-Jensen, the Danish Ambassador to the United States, and previously the Assistant Secretary General for Legal Affairs at the United Nations, said: “Denmark’s ticket to the Arctic is because Greenland was a Danish colony for 300 years. In 1953 the Danish people decided to change its Constitution and include Greenland and the Faroe Islands as integral parts of the Danish realm giving them the same rights as all Danes. Since 2009, Greenland has enjoyed home rule, meaning they can decide all issues of internal matters except for defense and foreign policy, which is still the responsibility of Denmark.” Officially, Greenland is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark.

The Arctic is called the “Last Frontier,” said the Ambassador. “Because of climate changes, there are a lot of new opportunities but also a lot of new challenges for the countries of the region and the world.”

“Our approach to deal with these opportunities and challenges has been to seek a situation where we revamp the international governance system in the Arctic. We have strengthened our internal providence by ascribing the home rule self-rule of the Greenlandic kingdom. We have worked to strengthen the Arctic Council, which was established in 1996, and to try to see to it that the Arctic Council could be the framing governance institution to manage all of the challenges. We have worked to ensure that the Arctic region continues to be one of low tension and where all issues are dealt with diplomatically.”

The Arctic Council consists of the eight Arctic States: Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. There are 12 permanent observer states including: China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, Spain, and UK. There are several intergovernmental organizations, NGOs, and organizations representing the indigenous peoples.

Amb. Taksøe-Jensen said: “Even though five of the Arctic countries in the Arctic Council are NATO members, NATO does not have an Arctic policy nor does it play any role significant in the Arctic.”

In 2007, Russia planted a Russian flag on the underwater Lomonosov ridge, which Moscow claims is directly connected to its continental shelf. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the five states with territory inside the Arctic Circle — Canada, Norway, Russia, the US, and Denmark, via its control of Greenland — have economic rights over a 200-mile zone around their northern coastlines. However, the convention is open to appeal, and several countries are disputing the limits of this zone. Russia believes its Siberian shelf is directly linked to the ridge, an underwater mountain crest that runs 1,240 miles across the polar region.

As a result of that controversial move and several territorial disputes, Denmark’s Foreign Minister organized the first-ever conference held at the ministerial level that included the five regional powers. The inaugural Arctic Ocean Conference was held in Ilulissat, Greenland in 2008. The five Arctic coastal area nations — Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States — discussed key issues relating to the Arctic Ocean. At the conclusion, the attendees announced the Ilulissat Declaration dealing with environmental regulation, maritime security, mineral exploration, polar oil oversight, and transportation.

According to the Ambassador, “The foreign ministers adopted a declaration basically saying all issues between the governments of the coastal states of the Arctic Ocean will sort out all issues according to international law and diplomatic terms. The ministers said there is no need to have a new treaty machine for the Arctic as there is for the Antarctic.” He said, “There was already a legal regime governing the relationship between the Arctic countries. This is covered in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”

Although the U.S. recognizes the UNCLOS as a codification of customary international law, it has not ratified it. To date, 165 countries and the European Union have joined the Convention.

“Basically you have a vast area which is opening up and where very few people are living and access is becoming more and more easy,” said the Ambassador. “The ministers in the 2008 meeting decided that there is a need to take steps to assure there will never be an Exxon Valdez or a Titanic situation again.”

The Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in Alaska spilling hundreds of thousands of crude oil in 1989, and the Titanic was a British passenger liner that hit an iceberg and sank in 1912.

“When we have shipping going through there it will be done in a way that takes into account the marine environment in that area. This was not sorted out, but it was identified as one of the issues to be addressed. Since 2008, the Americans have taken the lead with Russia to develop a treaty that sets out for the first time a legal machine in the Arctic Council dealing with the challenges of people in distress. Search and rescue is very important. We are trying to take the steps necessary to first of all identify the needs, and secondly, to build the capacity to be able to manage the challenge of having a lot of people accessing the Arctic region in a situation where you don’t have normal search and rescue.”

Concerning shipping and sea transport through the Arctic Ocean, the Ambassador referred to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), established in 1948 and headquartered in London, “to speed up the work on a polar code to ensure that those ships that go through the Arctic Ocean meet the standards that are sufficient to protect the environment. For instance, oil and gas tankers should have double hulls or be ice-strengthened to assure that if they did hit an iceberg it would not be a new disaster in that area.”

The Arctic Council: Chairmanship of the Arctic Council rotates every two years. The current chair is Canada, which serves until the ministerial meeting in May 2015. The United States will Chair from 2015 to 2017.

During the time that Denmark chaired the Arctic Council, a meeting was held in Greenland in 2011. This was the first time the United States sent a representative, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The Ambassador said that an important result of that meeting was to “raise awareness in Washington that the U.S. is actually an Arctic State.”

Impact on the Region: Amb. Taksøe-Jensen outlined some of the changes affecting the region, particularly the impact on the people living in the Arctic. The Inuit are concerned that changes in the weather will affect their food supply and safety. Hunting for native animals and fish is for food but also the basis for their cultural and social identity.

Denmark is working to “protect Greenland’s indigenous people and provide new opportunities to introduce business and all the infrastructure necessary in the Arctic to cope with the changes of 21st-century.”

Dr. Mark P. Barry, Senior Advisor, OPSA, asked the Ambassador that if climate change were not as prominent as we now see it, with much of the Arctic seas melting at a faster rate than anyone anticipated, would global attention to the Arctic be as great as it is today? The ambassador responded: “Climate change has accelerated all the opportunities and also accelerated the need to sort out some of the many challenges,” he said, “but the opportunity to do anything about the seabed in the Arctic in the ocean, if it’s covered by ice that can never be penetrated, is not as interesting as the situation is now where they can actually sail through the Arctic Ocean some summers all the way through. This is something that nobody discussed 50 years ago.”

The Ambassador expressed concern about U.S. policy:

  1. Secretary of State John Kerry is engaged in the Middle East and in other places. It is a difficult challenge to keep focused on managing these acute challenges everyday, but also keep focused on other priorities, and one of those, is the climate change in the Arctic.
  2. In April next year, the U.S. will take over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council for a two-year period. Normally, the chair finalizes its term with a ministerial meeting, but this meeting would be for the next administration to manage and that would be in 2017. Therefore they are looking at ways to demonstrate the priorities even during this administration.
  3. The U.S. has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Treaty ratification in the U.S. requires two-thirds of the Senate or 67 votes for approval, however, Republican senators have been able to block ratification of the treaty since it was signed in 1994. The treaty has the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Pentagon, and all former U.S. Secretaries of State.

Responding to a question from Dr. Betancourt about the indigenous people in Greenland, the Ambassador said the population of Greenland is 60,000. About 90% are Inuit, and the remaining 10% are Danish. Copenhagen sends a grant every year to ensure that the livelihood of those people is relative to the people who live in Denmark. Almost $1 billion is given each year to help the nomadic population.”

Since 2009, the two governments (Denmark and Greenland) have agreed to split revenue from minerals, oil, and gas until they balance out the annual grant from Denmark, at which point Greenland would stand on its own.

Although there is high expectation for economic revenue from oil, gas, and diamonds, there is still a problem with the timeline. The Ambassador says it will take at least until 2025-30 before revenues reach the people.

The Future of Arctic Shipping and Trade: With the region’s melting ice, there are new opportunities for shipping routes and international trade. Ships using the Arctic sea routes could save thousands of miles between the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean by bypassing the Panama Canal, saving time and money, and reducing its greenhouse gas emissions because of fuel savings.

Denmark is the fifth-largest shipping nation in the world,(after Japan, Greece, China and Germany). The Ambassador said, “When I spoke to Danish shippers, they say for planning purposes you need to know whether you can go one way or the other. There is no prediction whether the ice will cover this year or not without an icebreaker. It’s not really opening up yet. Basically the shipping companies are saying you can sail through but you can’t be sure if you can always do it and for shippers this is very important.”

A major issue concerns the need for more icebreakers. Presently, the U.S. Coast Guard has just two, the Healy and the Polar Star, both nearly 40 years old. Meanwhile, Russia has 25 icebreakers.

The opening of the Arctic region is of enormous importance for the United States, but it is coming at a time when the country is moving towards energy self-sufficiency, possibly as soon as the end of the decade. The U.S. is already the world’s largest natural gas and oil producer thanks to technological advances, which have allowed access to deposits of shale oil in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. Increased supply in the lower 48 states will have a strong impact on strategic investment and profitability in the Arctic region.

Regarding security concerns, the Ambassador said, “Russia’s actions in the Ukraine worry Denmark. We want to make sure the situation doesn’t deteriorate. The worst thing that could happen would be an arms race. Nobody wants that.”

Amb. Taksøe-Jensen’s Closing Assessment: “We are in good shape in the Arctic.” The Arctic Council has been strengthened. Members of the Arctic Council are committed to good governance and the peaceful resolution of issues. Basically, all the nations have a stake in economic growth and development. The Ambassador favors inviting observer nations, including: China, India, Japan, and the European Union. “It demystifies the work that is going on by the Arctic Council. It also raises awareness and helps to shape the thinking of these other states that have interest in the Arctic in a way that it should not be underestimated, such as corporations and non-Arctic states.” The Ambassador said there is much to be done to protect the environment, safeguard the indigenous people, and manage complex situations, which have global consequences. The Ambassador thanked the UPF for hosting the forum and encouraged further dialogue to raise awareness and identify issues, which promote peaceful development in the Arctic.

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