Preparing for a Sea Change

Europe will be wrangled for the next six months by a lanky, no-nonsense Swede named Carl Bildt. His country chairs this semester’s cascade of European Union summits, procedural debates and other gabfests. As Sweden’s foreign minister, it is Bildt’s job to make sense of it all — a task akin to herding not cats but eels.

Well, he asked for it, didn’t he? When he was Sweden’s prime minister in the 1990s, the conservative politician relentlessly overhauled his country’s socialist economic policies and neutralist orientation to push it into the European Union. Now Sweden is stuck picking up the pieces of a deepening European economic crisis, paralyzed national governments and a constitutional stalemate.

But it was Bildt’s description of the strategic consequences of climate change that galvanized my attention when he spoke here to the Council for the United States and Italy. The rapid melting of the Arctic ice sheet at the North Pole will bring “revolutionary new transport possibilities between the Atlantic and the Pacific,” he told the gathering, expanding that thought for me later in an interview.

Bildt is not alone in studying the geopolitical consequences of climate change at the top of the world and elsewhere. The U.S. and Russian navies are also looking hard at how the projected disappearance of polar “summer ice” in a decade or two will influence their strategy and maritime practices and perhaps alter a relationship that is still marked by big-power rivalry and distrust.

President Obama hopes to chip away at that distrust in Moscow this week. Making cooperation on climate change a priority agenda item for this and future leadership meetings of the two countries would be a big step forward. Neither has until now taken seriously enough the risks that global warming, carbon emissions, pollution and other environmental hazards increasingly pose to global stability.

It is not only scientists who are ahead of the politicians. So are their military establishments, which realize that “warfare enterprises” will also be transformed by rising oceans, expanding deserts and shifting topography.

Russia, for example, will gradually lose a strategic asset if many environmental scientists are right and the Arctic ice sheet melts entirely in the next half-century. Russian submarines still regularly hide beneath the thick Arctic ice cover to avoid U.S. detection. They then stage surprise sudden ascents to practice launching the nuclear missiles they carry. Obama should ask his new best presidential friend, Dmitry Medvedev, if pursuing this closing window of Armageddon by stealth is really worth it.

The U.S. Navy established its own Task Force on Climate Change this year to draw up a “road map” for adapting force structure and operations to the coming creation of new Arctic sea lanes and other environmental changes. It is conceivable, scientists and diplomats say, that U.S. and other warships will sail across the North Pole for the first time in history as early as 2013, when new passages will be open for as long as four weeks.

“We look at the Arctic as the bellwether of climate change,” said an involved Pentagon official. “We intend to apply things we develop through the task force more broadly” to all services as climate change becomes a driving force in defense policy.

“In the long term, the opening of the Arctic will be bad news for the pirates in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific,” Bildt told me, citing studies predicting that transit time for American and European rescue naval forces — as well as commercial shipping — to those areas can be cut by a third or half as polar sea lanes open.

“But of course it is also bad news for people who live in the Maldives” and other areas that face submergence by rising oceans, he continued. “We are entering a new era of climate-related diplomacy.”

The Arctic is a frozen sea surrounded by five coastal states: the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark (on behalf of Greenland). Conflicting claims to territorial limits — particularly between the United States and Canada — will be brought to a head by commercial and military use of the area.

Improving relations with Russia will help. But that is not an end-all. Obama should also rapidly push Congress to ratify the long-neglected Law of the Sea Treaty. Time, and global warming’s tides, wait for no president.

Jim Hoagland