New Warming, New Cold War

A confluence of events seems to have focused the heat of the new cold war on the arctic. It’s all hit high gear now with the recent Russian mission to put a flag on the sea floor under the North Pole…

A confluence of events seems to have focused the heat of the new cold war on the arctic. It’s all hit high gear now with the recent Russian mission to put a flag on the sea floor under the North Pole (like “placing a flag on the moon” said a spokesman for Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Institute, reminding us of the cold-war inspired symbolism of putting an American flag on the moon). Suddenly, there is a surge of movement toward the pole in vessels flying the flags of the US, Canada and Denmark, as geologists, Prime Ministers, diplomats and scientists are all caught, willfully or not, in the hoopla. Larry Mayer, an American researcher leading one of these expeditions, who I’m quite sure honestly and truly was just finally getting long-awaited ship time, was put into the uncomfortable position of having to deny vehemently that this had anything to do with the Russian mission: “There’s no flag-dropping on this trip,” he said (I like the subtle whiff of scientific superiority to affairs of state in that one short line).

Outside of the amusing news that Russian TV broadcasts of the events were faked by inserting footage directly from Jame’s Cameron’s Titanic, the flag planting raises a number of issues. Specifically, warming, new technologies, and continually elevated markets for carbon fuel and minerals has opened the arctic literally and in the imagination of several countries with arctic borders. I’d guess the first “Eureka” cries of the new Arctic gold rush really started with the shocking reports of 2000 that the North Pole was ice free. The first highly publicized political machinations of this new arctic vision came during the Canadian elections when conservative candidate Stephen Harper ran in part on a Canadian sovereignty platform with specific reference to the Northwest Passage, an once mythical route over North America that has new significance with polar ice melting. Now that Harper is Prime Minister that unexpected Canadian saber rattling has continued:

“Our government has an aggressive Arctic agenda,” Dimitri Soudas, the Prime Minister’s spokesman, said Wednesday. “Economic development — unleashing the resource-based potential of the North; environmental protection_ protecting the unique northern environment; national sovereignty — protecting our land, airspace and territorial waters.”

And while the US and Canada often seem to clash over ocean issues, and still trade barbs on the Northwest Passage issue (including a recent failed diplomatic agreement between President Bush and PM Harper), they may find themselves needing to cooperate to claim the riches of the poles for North America. This all may play out in the court of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Most directly UNCLOS plays a role because the treaty allows for individual states to lay claim to mineral resources within their national boundaries-typically limited to the 200 mile EEZ limit, but extending to the continental shelf break if it is shown that the shelf extends beyond the 200 mile limit. Thus, there is an inherent contradiction in Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s claim that, “The aim of this expedition is not to stake Russia’s claim but to show that our shelf reaches to the North Pole,” If the shelf indeed reaches the Pole, Russia has staked its claim.

There’s a hitch, though. The U.S. hasn’t acceded to UNCLOS. The George W. Bush administration, most major US industries, and a majority of the US Congress supports signing on (even some former Reagan State Department folks who spent their time on a world wide ‘diplomacy’ mission to scuttle UNCLOS have come around to its merits), but a few holdouts in the US Senate with strong anti-UN sentiments have thus far managed to put US accession on hold.

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