Peter Oppenheimer
Peter Oppenheimer

From disappearing landmasses to widespread drought, descriptions of climate change’s potential impacts are grim. Its larger geopolitical and commercial ramifications are perhaps less talked about. On April 7, Peter Oppenheimer, section chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) General Counsel Office International Section, delivered a lecture about the impacts of climate change in the Arctic, covering a variety of international political and economic implications that have already begun to take shape.

Titled “Aspects of Arctic Climate Change and Marine Geo-Engineering,” Oppenheimer’s lecture was sponsored by the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center as part of the Levitt Center Speaker Series.

Oppenheimer began his talk with an overview of the Arctic’s geopolitical characteristics. Eight countries have land within the Arctic Circle’s boundaries, five of which control a coastal boundary along the 5.5 million square mile Arctic Ocean. Oppenheimer said the region has experienced warming trends at twice the rate of the rest of the globe and as a result, permafrost has begun to thaw, ecosystems have suffered, and sea ice has diminished rapidly. Specifically, he said, the Arctic ice cap has retreated 40 percent since 1979.

While many agree climate change’s environmental consequences are potentially devastating, “the economic potential of the Arctic is opening up” as a result of the receding ice cap, according to Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer pointed out that one important ramification of the diminishing Arctic ice will be greater access to the region’s estimated 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil, most of which will be available to Russia. He discussed how international laws of the sea allow countries to claim control over the seabed beyond the 200 nautical miles they are customarily entitled to, raising the potential for political conflict over access to the Arctic’s rich natural resources.

Addressing the possibility of a major geopolitical clash in the Arctic, Oppenheimer argued the international laws governing the region are generally agreed upon and observed by all parties, so the potential for serious conflict is limited.

Oppenheimer also explained how a diminished ice cap could have major implications for commercial shipping. As the ice melts, it opens up new northern shipping passages that offer a much shorter alternative to the current routes used for over 17,000 transits each year.

While the shorter shipping routes would result in less fossil fuel consumption and more efficient delivery of goods, Oppenheimer pointed out that they also pose concerns regarding oil spills, groundings, and collisions, as well as habitat disturbance and the introduction of invasive species.

In the final part of his talk, Oppenheimer discussed the field of marine geo-engineering and its efforts to combat climate change. He gave an overview of two emerging practices, sub-seabed sequestration and iron fertilization.

Sub-seabed sequestration seeks to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and contain it deep within the earth’s land and oceans. Iron fertilization, which has been the subject of recent controversy, attempts to stimulate the growth of oceanic microorganisms that help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and contain it on the ocean floor.

Oppenheimer speculated that “on its surface [marine geo-engineering] potentially holds a lot of promise,” but clarified that “so little is known about its impacts” at this early stage in development.

“Future global warming is inevitable at this rate,” said Oppenheimer, and his talk made clear that its impacts extend beyond environmental degradation, implicating a variety of geopolitical and commercial concerns.

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