By Eddie Walsh
Norwegian Roald Amundsen is remembered as one of the world’s great explorers. His accomplishments include reaching both the North and South Poles and being the first to sail through the Northwest Passage. Remarkably, these feats were achieved in the early-1900s, long before the age of Gore-Tex® and modern survival gear.
After all of his great adventures, Amundsen was lost not on expedition but rather conducting a rescue mission to save a friend in the Arctic. His death reflects the harsh reality of life in the High North. This is not lost on Ambassador Wegger Chr. Strommen of the Kingdom of Norway, when he pulls down an inflatable globe, points to the Arctic, and stresses, “These are extreme conditions. These are not the tropics. You have to use military assets and military equipped platforms to have any kind of presence for search and rescue.”
In this respect, not a lot has changed since Amundsen’s days. But, what has changed is that the ice is melting and Arctic sea lanes are opening. This has profound strategic repercussions for the eight member states of the Arctic Council.
Eddie Walsh, a non-resident fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS, therefore sat down with Ambassador Strommen to discuss his views on the political, economic, and environmental implications of an open Arctic, both for the Arctic-Pacific region and the rest of the world.
There has been major criticism of the lack of cooperation on climate change in the Arctic. Do you think there should be more cooperation in managing the effects of climate change, particularly in the area of conservation? If so, what is Norway doing to spearhead these efforts?
Climate change is a global issue and we need global solutions. Regional arrangements will not fix the problem. We need to keep up the world’s concern. I wouldn’t rule out some regional arrangements. I’m sure there are specific issues which can be dealt with on the regional level in the Arctic. That’s why the Arctic Council has activities which border on the climate issues in the Arctic region. But, we need to maintain the global focus. We saw what happened in Durban. It’s something but we would like to have seen stronger global arrangements. Unfortunately, more than what we have at the moment does not see possible. So, we will just have to work with what we have at the moment.
Dr. Paul Hilde of the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies has said “There will be no Arctic bonanza, at least not in the short run. Norway is clearly awakening from the Arctic dreams of the mid-2000s.” Do you share these views?
I share some of these views but not all. I agree there won’t be a bonanza in the North. But, we have made significant oil discoveries just in the last few months. His comments were made before those findings. We also have serious gas findings in between the Spitsbergen Islands and the mainland and there are already commercial routes over the Northwest Passage.
While I don’t think there will be a bonanza, there will be carefully regulated development as more places become available in the North. For example, our fisheries in the North already represent a big business. Unlike other parts of the world, fisheries stocks are actually growing in the Arctic, what we call the High North. These stocks have been very well preserved by us and the Russians.
There are serious environmental concerns with developing Arctic energy and mining resources, particularly in the harsh conditions of the Arctic. How concerned should the international community be with the environmental risks posed by energy and mining resource extraction in the Arctic? How did the Deep Water Horizon and the recent spill off Scotland affect your risk calculations for tapping these resources?
Before you start exploiting North, you really need to do your homework on the safety concerns, relationships with fisheries and maritime sea routes, and other issues. One must have a very cautious approach. With the oil prices pretty high and gas equivalents also reasonably high, things are moving forward on development. But, you need to move forward on environmentally safe ground.
Every accident makes you re-evaluate your own systems. But, we have a long-established history on how we do this in the North. We have experience with deep water and cold temperatures. It will be very strictly regulated as we have strong laws governing the Norwegian continental shelf and we will open areas as they mature and we have the capacity to look after these areas. Our neighbors will have to look over their own area. But, there are clearly cross-border issues when you think about the Arctic. That’s why the Arctic Council is so important. If you have an environmental accident, you can easily imagine it spreading from one jurisdiction to another.
And, environmental risks do not apply only to oil and gas. Think about maritime transportation over the North Pole or through the Northwest Passage. Of course, these scenarios worry the Russians a lot as their stretch of coast is by far the longest. You can understand their concerns. If there was a major new international shipping route along the Siberian coast, what kind of environmental dangers does that represent. But, it is not useful to have such a conversation without the Russians being present.
With global fisheries under stress, there are concerns that the Arctic could be increasingly overfished as the sea ice retreats. This could cause increased tensions between regional actors seeking to enforce their maritime economic zones. How can such tension be best managed?
Fisheries are a seriously regulated business. It has to be – we have so many sad examples of overfished fish stocks in many places. But, parts of the fish stocks in the North Atlantic and Arctic are actually growing, like Norwegian Arctic cod. So far, our stocks have been very well preserved by ourselves and the Russians. Fish don’t observe borders so we must have a system in place with the Russians to manage these resources. What we have works very well.
The real concern is now that you are bringing in other activities into the Arctic. How do you make sure that the fisheries, which are so valuable to the region, have their proper place. You must balance them with other kinds of activity like maritime shipping and transportation, oil and gas exploration, and scientific activity. But, there are systems and regulations for fisheries, so I think we are confident that you utilize the systems that you have, which are effective.
These territories are covered by different jurisdictions and there are already regimes in place to cover the waters. There are non-Arctic states who want to come in but they must have a legal basis. You can’t just send a fishing vessel in. Illegal fishing is a serious problem but we have experience there. We have the assets to enforce our fisheries agreements with other states. We will look after our areas and I’m pretty sure the other Arctic states will as well. We have mutual interests.
The Clipper Adventurer accident in Canada raised a lot of concern regarding Arctic search and rescue capabilities. Did media coverage of this accident measurably increase the likelihood for cooperation on non-traditional security issues between regional actors?
When you have an accident, it focuses the mind. It can’t have a negative impact. It raises interests. Even without the accident, we understand these risks. We see a lot of activity in the cruise business, especially going up to the North. With more activities comes more risk – not only for accidents but also for the environment.
Eddie Walsh is a senior foreign correspondent who covers Africa and Asia-Pacific. He is a non-resident fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum and founder of the Asia-Pacific Reporting Blog. Follow him on twitter: @AseanReporting