Arctic Shipping: New Environmental and Human Rights Risk

As a direct result of climate change, the Arctic is warming at a much faster rate than the rest of the planet. In 2016 the average temperature in the Arctic increased by 12 degrees Fahrenheit, a margin that would be cause for widespread panic if it occurred in a more populated area of the world. On June 21, 2017, the Wilson Center hosted a daylong forum on the geopolitical implications of Arctic sea ice melt, the economic opportunities created, and the growing intercontinental tensions in the last unexplored and largely undeveloped region of the world.

For centuries, the Arctic and its peoples have remained an afterthought in the international arena, but as sea ice melts and the region becomes more accessible, global superpowers are now turning their attention to the far North. This Wilson Center hosted an event that brought together leaders, including Olafur Grimsson, former President of Iceland, and Admiral Paul Zukunft, Commandant of the US Coast Guard, to discuss the opportunities and challenges of a more accessible Arctic.

One of the major consequences of the changing conditions in the Arctic is the prospect of international shipping. Traveling through the Arctic instead of the Panama Canal would drastically shorten the distance between Europe and Asia, in some cases reducing the trip by two weeks.

While shipping in the Arctic is in its early stages, the quickly degrading sea ice indicates that soon the Arctic will be largely ice-free during the summer months, leaving it open for business, so to speak.

This drastic increase in economic activity in the Arctic raises many questions about territorial boundaries, indigenous rights, and long term environmental protection in a region that until now has remained relatively unpolluted and is crucial to the future of climate change mitigation.

For example, the Northwest Passage, a sea route above North America that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans has long been disputed. For nearly 50 years, Canada has claimed that the passage is part of the internal waters of Canada, which allows it to bar traffic and set regulations governing its use. However, the United States and the European Union consider the Northwest Passage to be international waters where all ships have the right to pass freely. This conflict was downplayed at the Wilson Center forum with one panelist expressing that the issue is not a dispute, but an unresolved question. Regardless of official jurisdiction, both sovereign nations and intergovernmental forums must adopt strong regulations to control Arctic traffic, and especially its accompanying pollution.

Currently, technology outpaces both the law and our understanding of the complex ecosystem of the Arctic. Without proper planning, large-scale international shipping will begin well before adequate environmental protections and oil spill response protocols are in place. Many industry representatives at the Wilson Center Arctic Forum were eager to address the investment opportunities in the Arctic, but they proposed few concrete steps to prevent harm to the environment and indigenous communities.

Arctic shipping is currently governed by the Arctic Council, UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the recently enacted Polar Code, which was adopted by the International Maritime Organization. The Polar Code went into effect in 2017 and addresses some environmental and safety concerns, but is far from being a strict regulatory document. Under the Polar Code, Arctic ships must meet higher standards of construction, take steps to avoid hitting marine mammals, and refrain from dumping sewage, oily waste, or noxious materials.

While it is a step in the right direction, the Polar Code leaves much to be desired for environmental and human rights protections. The central glaring omission from the text is any mention of the use of heavy fuel, a type of oil that emits soot, or black carbon. Black carbon contributes to warming by absorbing light faster than ice does on its own, thereby hastening the melting process if ice is coated by it. Black carbon’s effect on climate change in the Arctic is well documented and could become much worse if the source of the emissions originates in the Arctic instead of settling there after travelling from sources farther South.

The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum composed of the eight Arctic states and six indigenous peoples groups, has been successful in advocating for caution and conscientiousness while exploring the region even though it’s a soft law regime. It has ratified agreements governing maritime search and rescue, pollution, and scientific collaboration. The Arctic Council also has a standing working group on sustainable development to protect the health and culture of indigenous peoples.

This working group was created because rapid melting has had detrimental effects on indigenous people whose survival depends on their ability to fish, hunt, and migrate in a stable and healthy ecosystem. In addition to the environment, climate change directly impacts the cultures and livelihoods of over four million people who live above the Arctic Circle, of which 10% are indigenous people. These groups have already endured considerable loss of culture and tradition as a result of changing ecosystems, and they risk increased food insecurity as animal populations migrate away or go extinct due to damaged habitats. In 2005, Inuit peoples brought a case against the United States at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), claiming that the US violated their human rights by causing climate change and indirectly destroying their livelihoods. The IACHR did not move forward with the petition, but the case was pivotal in the movement to frame climate change as a human rights issue.

Though the day of the Wilson Center’s Arctic Forum mostly focused on economic opportunities, multiple panelists advocated for consideration of the rights of indigenous people in the Arctic. Melanie Bahnke, President & CEO of Kawerak, Inc., a coalition of Alaskan indigenous groups, brought a human perspective to the forum that until that time had focused primarily on investment and infrastructure. She highlighted that before we can discuss massive shipping operations or new deep water ports, we must address basic human needs for Arctic peoples, including access to clean water, working sewage, and housing.

By Casey Harris, Communications Intern

Originally posted August 9, 2017