How Great Power Competition in the Arctic Could Become a Catalyst for Instability in the Global South

By: Eric Altamura, Columnist

Photo by: National Geographic

The growing frequency and severity of extreme weather events due to climate change have disproportionately affected commodity-based economies in the Global South. A constant cycle of increasingly destructive storms, followed by periods of prolonged drought, have devastated rural communities. These events have triggered mass migrations northward, with security implications for countries outside the directly-affected areas.[i] Furthermore, environmental challenges correlate with increased crime and violence, as displaced populations move to cities with already fragile governmental institutions and widespread poverty.[ii]

A less prominent, but no less imminent threat, arises from the indirect impacts that global climate change will have in exacerbating the problems that the Global South already faces. In particular, an increasingly accessible Arctic may divert resources from southern economies that depend on revenues from the commercial shipping and energy sectors, further destabilizing the most volatile regions across the globe. In other words, due to the gradual shift of US, Chinese, and European economic focus towards areas of the world made newly exploitable by climate change, the Global South stands to lose the most.

The Arctic has taken on a new degree of strategic importance in recent years as warming temperatures have caused sea ice to melt at unprecedented rates. According to estimates included in the 2014 National Climate Assessment, current trends indicate that the Arctic Ocean will become virtually ice-free during the summer as early as 2040.[iii] However, the combination of recent technological advances in shipbuilding and abnormally thin winter sea ice in recent years suggests that sustained commercial activity in the Arctic may become economically viable well before the Arctic Ocean is fully free of ice. In fact, following a record-setting Arctic heat wave this past February, a commercial tanker successfully completed the first unassisted winter crossing of the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s northern coastline.[iv] By traveling through the Arctic, rather than through traditional maritime routes that utilize the Panama or Suez Canals, shipping between China and the US East Coast or Europe could potentially cut trip distances by 20-30%.[v]

Beyond its impact on commercial shipping, the Arctic is also estimated to contain as much as 13% of the world’s recoverable oil and up to 30% of remaining natural gas, based on a 2006 study conducted by the Bureau of Ocean Exploration and Management.[vi] As hydrocarbon resources have become increasingly accessible for year-round development, the Arctic states have initiated a new era of strategic competition to stake their claims in the region. Based on the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS), Russia, Norway, and Denmark have submitted jurisdictional claims of the Arctic seabed to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), while Canada is still in the process of finalizing a submission complicated by the portions of its extended continental shelf (ECS) that overlap with those of other nations.[vii] The United States, the only Arctic state not to ratify the UNCLOS, has yet to prepare a competing claim, although Congress has tasked the US Coast Guard to map the ECS north of Alaska.[viii]

This year, China published its strategy for the Arctic, asserting China and the international community’s right to utilize Arctic shipping routes and to develop hydrocarbon, mineral, and fishing resources in the region.[ix] Meanwhile, Russian, Canadian, and European investments in modern ice-breaking ships, deep water ports, and other infrastructure indicates that Arctic nations have already acknowledged the important role the region will play in global commerce. Even the US Coast Guard, with its limited budget, requested proposals for a heavy icebreaker earlier this month, and plans to acquire a fleet of six total icebreaking ships within the next two decades.[x]

Altogether, these trends suggest that the world’s most developed countries will have much less incentive to engage with the Global South in the near future, particularly when dealing with major ‘choke points,’ such as the Panama Canal, Suez Canal, and Strait of Malacca, that currently connect eastern and western economies. As the effects of climate change continue to amplify, northern nations may choose to circumvent traditional trade routes and resource markets entirely, favoring polar transit to cut costs and mitigate the risks of doing business in less stable regions.

A rapid decrease in investments and economic development in the Global South by northern nations could precipitate crisis in the most vulnerable regions of the world. As the world becomes less dependent on the Middle East, Central America, and Southeast Asia for energy resources and commercial shipping routes, failed economies and governing institutions in these regions could potentially lead to a resurgence of religious extremism, narcoterrorism, and authoritarianism. Ultimately, it is in the United States’ best interest to make substantial investments in these regions now to mitigate risks by promoting economic diversification and resilient infrastructure development in order to better prepare for the coming economic and environmental changes.





[i] David Reed, “Don’t Waste the New US Water-Security Strategy,” Defense One, February 16, 2018,

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] U.S. Global Change Research Program, Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment, eds. Jerry M. Melillo, T.C. Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, May 2014).

[iv] National Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis, March 6, 2018,

[v] Carsten Orts Hansen, et al., Arctic Shipping: Commercial Opportunities and Challenges (CBS: Frederiksberg, 2016), 14.

[vi] Energy Tomorrow, “Arctic: Energy Security,” Energy Tomorrow, March 8, 2018,

[vii] International Boundaries Research Unit, “Arctic Maps,” Durham University, March 11, 2018,

[viii] Lauren Steenson, “Mapping the Extended Continental Shelf in the Arctic,” Coast Guard Compass, April 28, 2016.

[ix] BBC News, “China to Develop Arctic Shipping Routes Opened by Global Warming,” BBC News, January 26, 2018,

[x] David B. Larter, “US Coast Guard to Release New Heavy Icebreaker RFP,” Defense News, March 1, 2018,


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.