Vienna, November 18 – Even though the Arctic Sea floor contains up to 30 percent of the world’s remaining natural gas reserves and has been identified by President Dmitry Medvedev as “Russia’s resource base for the 21st century,” a climatic quirk may limit Moscow’s ability to develop these and other natural resources anytime soon.
That quirk, which was discussed in detail at a Moscow conference last week, involves the following counter-intuitive development: As global warming has reduced the Arctic ice cap, that has contributed to an increase in the number of icebergs, thus creating a new challenge for drilling platforms and shipping there (www.vremya.ru/2009/210/4/241768.html).
And that “Titanic effect,” as researchers are calling it, could have two further consequences, both of which may prove far more significant than anyone might have thought only a year or two ago. On the one hand, the iceberg problem is likely to significantly reduce the chances that the northern sea route will become operational anytime soon.
On the other, the delay in exploiting the natural wealth of the Arctic seabed may not only allow the indigenous people of the region greater opportunities to protect their traditional forms of economic and social life but also postpone if not eliminate the very real risk that international conflicts in what some have called “the new cold war” will not evolve into a hot one.
Last week at a scientific-practical conference in Moscow on “The Russian Arctic – Problems and Perspectives,” Russian and foreign specialists, representatives of the indigenous numerically small peoples of the region and official both federal and local discussed how “to find a balance between” the environment and natural resource development.
That task, speakers at the conference said had been complicated by the rapidity of climate change. “Five to ten years ago,” they said, “no one had supposed that changes in the Arctic would take place so quickly,” and consequently, the projections scholars and officials made then have been overtaken by events.
Several speakers focused on the ECORA program, which is intended to protect delicate eco-systems in Russia’s Far North and promote good relations between the indigenous population, business structures, and government officials. It has achieved some success in areas with little economic development but much less where developers are involved.
In the latter, it has failed to find ways to involve local residents in the modern economic development sphere and as a result, participants at last week’s conference said, these regions “lead the country” in the difference in income and standard of living between those involved in the high-technology sector and those in the traditional areas.
The one indisputable contribution of the ECORA program over the five years of its existence, Arkady Tishkov, the deputy director of the Moscow Institute of Geography said, is that the Russian authorities have at long last “permitted the local populations to take part in the resolution of issues of the use of bio-resources and the preservation of biological diversity.”
Unfortunately, Yevgeny Kuznetsov, an official of the natural resources ministry, pointed out, both ECORA and related programs have been the victims of the recent economic downturn. The number of programs has been cut by 50 percent, he told the meeting, and financing for them is from 50 to 70 percent less than it was only two years ago.
Several participants said that they expected “a new ‘cold war’ over resources of the Arctic,” but despite increased military activities by all five polar powers, there is increasing willingness on the part of all of them to resolve disputes over the shelf according to the Law of the Sea and on the model adopted by China and Japan concerning the South China Sea.
At the same time, however, participants in the Moscow session were clear that despite this commitment on the part of the five and despite the upcoming Copenhagen meetings on climate change, little or no progress can be expected on the Arctic except in bilateral talks, a conviction that may slow development in the Arctic every bit as much as the new icebergs will.