By Global Public Square staff
For anyone living in the Northern Hemisphere, it's been a sweltering few weeks. In fact, last month was the fifth hottest June in recorded history. According to government data, for 340 consecutive months – more than 28 years – the earth has been warmer than historic averages.
And take a look at what's happening in one of the coldest parts of the world – way up north in the Arctic.
Twenty-eight years ago, the Arctic was covered by ice throughout the year, as it had been for centuries. Now, every summer, two-thirds of it melts to water. In 2010, only four commercial ships were allowed to sail the Northern Sea Route, which connects northwestern Europe to northeastern Asia through the Arctic. In 2011, that number rose to 34 and then 46 the next year. This year, with five months still to go, more than 200 ships have already been given the green light to sail.
But is less ice and more water in the Arctic a good thing or a bad thing?
Well there is little doubt that the melting ice exacerbates climate change. Nature magazine published an important study last week calculating the impact of changes in the Arctic. It found that the thawing of the permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea is leading to the release of large amounts of methane – that means an intensification of the greenhouse gas effect and more extreme weather. The study's models claim that the cost of all this is $60 trillion – almost the size of the entire global economy. Whether or not that's accurate, this is definitely something we have to deal with.
But the melting Arctic is also an opportunity. Nearly one-third of the world's undiscovered gas lies under the Arctic. There are also vast reserves of metals and minerals. But who owns these resources? In 2007, Russia planted its flag 4,000 meters below the North Pole to establish its claim. (Of course, in modern international relations…that is not how to settle a territorial claim) In reality, no one owns the Arctic. Peace has been established by a group founded in 1996 - the Arctic Council. It had eight charter members, including the likes of Canada, Denmark, Russia, and the United States. Twelve more countries have joined since as observer states. These new members, like China, India and Singapore, have great interest in the region's resources – even though they are geographically very far away.
Whether we like it or not, countries are going to be interested in any resources that exist in the Arctic. And whether we like it or not, climate impacts are already underway. The important thing is to manage both aspects in a responsible manner.
That is not happening right now. And meanwhile, the United States has fallen far behind. Russia, China, and Canada have advanced systems to deal with navigating and policing these waters – America does not.
There is a treaty that regulates these things to some extent – the United Nation's Law of the Sea Treaty. But while 164 countries are signatories, the United States is not. Why? It's a familiar story: disagreement and gridlock in Washington have made it impossible for the Senate to ratify the treaty, despite the fact that it has the support of the last three presidents, Republicans and Democrats.
It is rare in this day and age to have a mass of land or water that lies beyond the borders of settled international law. The Arctic waters are such a territory – a grey area of a million square miles – and very important. As it continues to melt, it will get more contentious, and present more problems – but the United States will be out of the game. Unless the Senate can get off its, well, unless the Senate can ratify this treaty.