Thinking Critically About Security and the Arctic in the Anthropocene

Environmental changes in the Arctic are driving complex physical and social processes that place circumpolar states and peoples on the frontline of global environmental insecurity. Humanity’s collective impacts on the global biosphere have led to a new geological era – the Anthropocene – in which transformative environmental change threatens to undermine conditions of security for states, sub-state communities, and non-human referent objects. Understanding these environmental hazards requires a critical approach to security and the environment that allows the production of insecurity in the Arctic to be linked to activities, processes, and systems located within and beyond the region. In fact, dominant understandings and practices of Arctic security are pathological precisely because they contribute to environmental change while failing to identify the threats it is causing. Using the examples of Canada and Norway, I argue that Arctic security must be understood critically both to support the wellbeing of Arctic inhabitants, and because the region is a bellwether for the health of the global biosphere that underpins the security of people, states, and regions around the world.

The Anthropocene: A Changing Environment

Since the Industrial Revolution, Earth’s surface has warmed by approximately one degree Celsius due to human activities such as deforestation, other land use changes, and, most notably, burning of fossil fuels. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that 2-3 degrees of warming will occur by the end of this century, depending on the rate of global emissions increase (IPCC, 2013, pp. 5-20). Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions are higher than any time in the last 800,000 years (IPCC, 2013, p. 11), and are generating a new global climate radically different than the one in which human civilization has emerged. The effects of the warming climate are most visible in the polar regions, but are particularly worrying in the Arctic because Antarctica has no permanent inhabitants. Arctic temperatures are increasing at approximately twice the global average, causing impacts such as: thinning sea ice, receding glaciers, reduced snow cover, thawing permafrost, changing terrestrial water systems, increased lake temperatures, stress on plant and animal populations, invasive species, more extreme seasonal temperature variation, and damage to critical infrastructure and human communities (Larsen et al., 2014; IPCC, 2013; ACIA, 2004).

The Arctic is predicted to be free of summer sea ice by mid-century (Wang and Overland, 2009), marking a dramatic and irreversible change to the northern polar region. The rise in global temperature has caused concern that crossing certain ecological ‘tipping points’ could catalyze rapid and uncontrollable climate change (Lenton, 2011; Lenton et al., 2008). In particular, positive feedbacks including release of methane stored in Arctic and sub-Arctic permafrost, melting of polar ice reducing global reflectivity of solar radiation (albedo), or the collapse of the Greenland and Antarctic ice-sheets will exacerbate warming and undermine ecological integrity around the globe (IPCC, 2013, p. 16; Lenton, 2012).

The gravity of climate change is exacerbated by the fact that it represents only one aspect of a broader ecological crisis facing the global biosphere. Climate change, biodiversity loss, and interference in the nitrogen cycle form three of seven global ecological boundaries thought to have been exceeded due to human activity, with two others, ocean acidification and interference in the phosphorus cycle, approaching their estimated safe thresholds (Steffenet al., 2015; Rockström et al., 2009). The cumulative effects of an industrialized global civilization of over seven billion people are straining the carrying capacity of the biosphere, and undermining Earth as a “safe operating space for humanity” (Ibid). The result is the advent of the Anthropocene, a new geological era characterized by humanity’s ability to fundamentally alter the global ecological context that it relies upon for survival (Crutzen, 2002). Thus, the Anthropocene is integral to the changing context in which humans will pursue their security in the 21stcentury and beyond (Dalby, 2002; 2009).

Changing Arctic Security

In recent decades, understandings of security in the Arctic have changed profoundly due to the interaction between the political shifts of the post-Cold War era and climate change. During the Cold War, the Arctic was a buffer between the American and Soviet superpowers, resulting in the presence of substantial military resources while stifling the development of effective regional institutions (Keskitalo, 2007, p. 194). But since then, the Arctic has progressed rapidly “from Cold War theatre to mosaic of cooperation” (Young, 2005, p. 9). Environmental change was a key component of this process that drove interstate cooperation – and thus helped improve regional security – as Arctic states initiated confidence-building measures and began to cooperate on managing common environmental challenges (Åtland, 2007, p. 294). The result was a range of successful initiatives throughout the 1990s, including greater scientific and environmental cooperation as well as the establishment of institutions such as the Barents Euro-Arctic Region, the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, and the Arctic Council (Eriksson, 1995; Hønneland, 2010).

Since then Arctic states have identified the changing environment as affecting their security in two distinct ways: (1) it has made the Arctic more accessible to other state and commercial actors, raising the stakes for boundary disputes, resource development, and regional governance; and (2) it has contributed to the emergence of various unconventional security issues. As a result, Arctic states have increased military spending and activities, with some employing bellicose rhetoric in asserting their regional interests (Huebert et al., 2012). Discursive and material militarism in the Arctic has increased in Canada (Huebert, 2010; 2009; Lackenbauer, 2010; Bergh, 2012), Norway (Jensen and Rottem, 2010; Åtland and Pedersen, 2008), and Russia (Åtland, 2011; Antrim, 2010; Zysk, 2010). This has translated into states: investing in military capabilities and infrastructure; undertaking sovereignty assertion patrols and more frequent military exercises; renewing activities such as long range bomber patrols and ‘buzzing’ neighbor’s’ airspace; and reacting and over-reacting to each other’s military activities.

Though they have yet to actually materialize, prospective risks such as illegal shipping, smuggling, irregular migration, and even terrorism, in increasingly accessible Arctic waters have attracted high-level concern and informed training scenarios for some armed forces (Byers, 2009, pp. 16-18; Fitzpatrick, 2012). Growth in civilian activities such as resource extraction, tourism, and destination shipping also require military assets to be regionally deployed in case of emergencies. While some military activities have been cooperative, such as joint exercises between multiple Arctic states and several meetings of all Arctic military chiefs, regional relations are susceptible to non-Arctic phenomena. This is demonstrated by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, ongoing support for armed separatist groups in eastern Ukraine, and the sanctions subsequently imposed by Western states against Russian officials, which have affected regional institutions such as the Arctic Council. But though some scholars express concern over the prospect of regional conflict (Huebert, 2010; 2009), most reject the likelihood of inter-state violence in the region (Keil, 2014; Young, 2009).

Increased Arctic militarism has been catalyzed by environmental change, particularly the increasing navigability and accessibility of historically ice-covered waters. When the Arctic Ocean was frozen for most of the year, states had little incentive to quarrel over minor disagreements. Disputed Arctic boundaries had little effect on core national interests, and states were unwilling to destabilize the global strategic balance or risk their diplomatic relations. As sea ice has receded, however, states have paid greater attention to the delimitation of their Arctic maritime boundaries and worked to settle disputes. This has coincided with the need to submit claims to their extended continental shelves within ten years of ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Norway and Russia negotiated their maritime boundary in the Barents Sea in 2010, but disputes remain between Canada and Greenland (Denmark) and Canada and the United States. There is also overlap between the Canadian, Danish, and Russian claims to their extended continental shelves. Though expected to be resolved through negotiation under UNCLOS, cooperation in determining their extended continental shelves is one area that might be strained by the deterioration in Western-Russian relations, and their outcome remains uncertain.

In addition to the symbolic value of certain Arctic geographies, notably the North Pole (Mazo, 2014), states’ interest in asserting and expanding their Arctic sovereignty is motivated by achieving the greatest possible control of Arctic resources. At stake are shipping lanes, fisheries, and hydrocarbons, the latter estimated to be 90 billion barrels of oil and 46 trillion cubic metres of natural gas, representing 13% and 30% of undiscovered global resources, respectively (Gautier et al., 2009). Major conflicts are unlikely given doubt over the technical feasibility of developing these resources, the collapse in the market price of oil, and because most are thought to lie in undisputed sovereign territory. In practice, many disputes continue to be ignored, and all Arctic states emphasize the absence of conventional military threats in the region and reaffirm their commitments to peaceful resolution of Arctic disputes. Nevertheless, for some, Arctic resources remain central to their national economic security. Thus, while there is little evidence climate change will directly result in interstate violence, the opening of the Arctic has led to a renewed emphasis on military activity, and the prospect of resource wealth has raised the stakes for states asserting and defending their Arctic sovereignty claims. As shown by the cases of Canada and Norway, Arctic states identify security issues related to national defence, sovereign territoriality, and natural resource extraction.

Arctic Security in Canada and Norway

Over the past decade, Canada’s official understanding of Arctic security has been based on two linked pillars (Canada, 2010; 2009; 2008). The first pillar asserts the need for increased military defence of Canada’s Arctic in the face of potential challenges. It implies sovereignty over Canada’s Arctic lands and waters remains unsettled under international law and threatened by geopolitical rivals, requiring investment in new military capabilities and a greater Northern military presence. Specifically, the previous Conservative government depicted Canada’s sovereignty over the Northwest Passage as endangered, and a resurgent and expansionary Russia as its primary Arctic antagonist (Dodds, 2011; Lackenbauer, 2010). When recent government expenditures and activities in the North are examined, sovereignty – understood as the military defence of Canadian territory – is clearly the priority.

The signature Arctic initiatives promised or undertaken by the federal government principally consist of defence and military investments, including: a Canadian Forces Arctic Training Centre at Resolute Bay; a deepwater berthing and fuelling facility at Nanisivik; expansion of the Canadian Rangers; establishing an Army reserve company in Yellowknife; a new icebreaker; a new fleet of Arctic offshore patrol ships; increased radar and satellite capacity, including unmanned aerial vehicles and both land-based and underwater sensors; and a proposed fleet of up to 60 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (Huebert et al., 2012, pp. 27-28). This list is informed by the policies of the Conservative Government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which lost the federal election in October 2015, and it remains to be seen how the successor Liberal Government will alter many of these plans. Moreover, Canadian governments of all parties have long histories of failing to deliver on Arctic spending promises. But having been in office for nearly a decade, at a minimum we can observe that such military investments were the centrepiece of the Conservative vision for the Arctic.

Building on the first, the second pillar explains much of the motivation for Canada’s increased Arctic militarism – namely that Arctic sovereignty must be asserted to enable natural resource extraction vital to the Canadian economy, and that extractive activities will offer further support to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty claims. Although extraction of many resources, particularly hydrocarbons, have increased only modestly, the idea of northern resources as important to the economic security of Canadians, in general, and Northerners, in particular, has been a significant component of Canada’s Arctic policy (Aglukkaq, 2012). In this sense, Canada tends to discuss security indirectly; sovereignty remains the central element of Canada’s Arctic discourse. But sovereignty and resources are clearly linked, since “when no one was talking about actually developing Arctic resources, the many sovereignty issues could be and were ignored” (Beauchamp and Huebert, 2008, p. 342). Therefore, Canada’s Arctic policy may be best understood as ‘sovereignty-as-security’. The state understands its national security to be promoted through the militarized assertion of sovereignty that enables Arctic resource extraction, which in turn demonstrates that Canada is actually exercising sovereignty over its Arctic.

Canada’s sovereignty-as-security discourse echoes key themes of Norwegian Arctic policy. Norway’s official understanding of security in its High North region is also structured around two longstanding central pillars: Russia and natural resources, primarily fisheries but increasingly hydrocarbons, as well (Norway, 2006). Though reiterated as part of Norway’s recent High North initiative, keeping the Russians out while extracting northern resources have been intimately connected to dominant constructions of the Norwegian national interest for at least two centuries (Jensen, 2012; Jensen and Hønneland, 2011; Jensen and Skedsmo, 2010; Berg, 2009). Concerning the first pillar, the Russo-Norwegian security relationship continues to evolve: it improved from its Cold War nadir only to deteriorate again following Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Subsequently, Russia, the EU, and NATO (of which Norway is a member), have all increased military activities in northern Europe. Similarly, the five Nordic countries have announced unprecedented military cooperation with each other and the neighbouring Baltic states (Fjeldsbø, 2014). Norway’s military has reinvigorated much of the defence apparatus whose utility appeared to decline after the Cold War due to improved relations with Russia (Higgins, 2015). Although Norwegian officials have been quick to dismiss prospects of invasion, they remain wary of their neighbour. The lieutenant-general in charge of Norway’s military headquarters – located outside the Arctic city of Bodø – described renewed tensions as a return to the “new old normal.” In a similar vein, the Defence Minister has stated that “Russia has created uncertainty about its intentions, so there is, of course, unpredictability” (quoted in Higgins, 2015). Though how Norway has understood Russia to threaten its security has varied over time, these developments indicate the persistent centrality of Russian to Norwegian conceptions of security.

While fisheries have long been the most important industry in the High North, and a source of tension with the Russians, over the past decade, offshore petroleum reserves have also been framed principally in terms of energy and economic security. Even though there is only one operational well in Norwegian Arctic waters more are expected, and “the official Norwegian discourse clearly rides on an energy plot, and on the perceptions of the European Arctic as a future petroleum province of regional and even global significance” (Jensen and Skedsmo, 2010, p. 448). Numerous foreign and defence policy documents and senior government officials identify securing and developing northern energy reserves as the core objective of the High North initiative and central to Norway’s national interest. Such statements explicitly invoke the link between energy and security in the High North, including the primacy of resource development over other policy areas; one former defence minister stated plainly that, “energy supplies and energy security have become security policy” (quoted in Jensen, 2012, p. 90). Ensuring energy extraction is now the context within which Norwegian security interests in the High North are to be assessed, since according to the Ministry of Defense: “The strategic importance of the High North and resource management over immense stretches of sea [have] provided central parameters for Norwegian security and defence policy” (quoted in Jensen 2012, pp. 87-88). Energy has been linked to national security through the domestic economic importance of hydrocarbons, particularly government reliance on rents from the petroleum industry to support the Norwegian welfare system (Kristoffersen and Young, 2010), and possible threats such as interruption of supply or inter-state competition over resource deposits, which are coded references to Russian challenges in the Barents region. Moreover, as energy production in southern Norway declines, it is necessary for production to expand in increasingly northern waters in order to offset the reduced revenues to the national government due to the state-owned nature of the Norwegian energy sector. The intersection of issues linking sovereignty, economic security, and maintenance of the welfare state has thus caused the High North to become a site considered essential to Norwegian national security interests.

Making Arctic Security Critical

Environmental change is the backdrop against which these understandings of Arctic security are set, but neither Canada nor Norway identifies environmental changes as inherently threatening. State understandings of Arctic security are not only inattentive to the threats of environmental change, but by prioritizing hydrocarbon extraction and hydrocarbon-intensive military activities they exacerbate it. In effect, the security policies of circumpolar states fail to reflect the magnitude of global and regional environmental changes. By contrast, I argue the connection between security and the environment must be critically reconceived to engage more deeply with ecological sustainability in order to provide meaningful security for people, communities, and states across the circumpolar region.

Drawing on Robert Cox (1989, p. 129), I view critical theory as “critical in the sense that it stands apart from the prevailing order of the world and asks how that order came about [… and] does not take institutions and social and power relations for granted but calls them into question by concerning itself with their origins and how and whether they might be in the process of changing.” Critical theories thus reject existing configurations of material and ideational power as the necessary framework for political action or social change. In the context of security and the environment, most scholarship has been uncritical in that it remains focused on environmentally induced violence while obscuring the roles of states, corporations, and individuals in constituting environmental hazards (Greaves, 2014; Barnett, 2001). By contrast, a critical approach to environmental security prioritizes maintenance of stable regional and global environments conducive to human flourishing.

The natural environment is seen as a series of interrelated systems upon which human life depends, and whose functioning in a manner consistent with human survival is being undermined by humanity’s own activities. The global economic system, with its reliance on carbon fuel, privatization of wealth, and collectivization of environmental costs, is central to critically understanding security and the environment: thus, “the broader social and ecological degradation wrought by modernity [is] the overriding context for any discussion of security” (Barnett, 2001, p. 65). Critical environmental security must begin by recognizing that how humans have organized our civilization is responsible for causing environmental changes that are generating insecurity for people around the world.

How might a critical perspective inform our understanding of security in the Arctic? One starting point might be to observe how dividing security into distinct sectors of analysis – such as military, political, economic, societal, and environmental security (Buzan, Wæver, and de Wilde, 1998) – marginalizes the impacts of non-environmental threats on ecological systems while obscuring how environmental factors can contribute to the emergence of military, economic, and societal threats. Threats in one sector can thus endanger referent objects and generate new threats in other sectors, as might the very responses states and other actors take to defend themselves. Critical Arctic security must therefore embrace the ecological maxim that ‘everything is connected to everything else’, and understand the role that state, community, and individual decisions play in rendering themselves secure or insecure. If ecological stability is the context for Arctic security, then thinking critically requires considering policy options that contribute to environmental sustainability but that may challenge existing interests or institutions. This involves imagining alternative futures for the Arctic based on new social, political, and ecological configurations, as well as working “towards the question of how humans, groups and communities navigate in and create life-worlds of socially informed choices and possibilities” (Sejersen, 2015, p. 192). By definition, the process of imagining alternative futures lends itself to questioning existing structures, and envisioning how they might change or be changed.

Critically reimagining Arctic security thus invites questioning whether state policies that prioritize militarism and natural resource extraction – particularly hydrocarbons – can actually sustain regional ecology, provide for the survival of Arctic communities, and support the wellbeing of Arctic inhabitants. Instead, we might imagine an Arctic in which extractive industries, that irreparably damage regional and local ecologies through climate change and point source pollution, are replaced with economic activities that support the priorities and traditions of Arctic inhabitants themselves. Such alternative possibilities are imagined in the understandings of security held by some Arctic Indigenous peoples, who identify referent objects such as their communities, the natural environment, Indigenous culture and identity, political and cultural autonomy, and the integrity of human-natural systems as their highest priorities. Inuit in Canada expressly identify environmental changes as threatening their ways of life, culture, and identity (Greaves, 2016; 2012). While Sámi in Norway have not identified environmental changes as threatening their security to a comparable degree, they still identify the core meaning of security in terms of maintaining their traditional economic activities and cultural identities (Greaves, 2015). Indigenous peoples are often critical in their attitudes towards security by virtue of their willingness to question the structures of institutional and social power responsible for reproducing patterns of colonial domination that generate the threats to which they are responding.

Alternative Arctic security also includes asking how institutions like the Arctic Council might evolve to be responsible for protecting the regional environment and helping provide security for Arctic inhabitants (Wilson, 2015). In this respect, the emergence of Indigenous peoples as key actors in circumpolar politics has already altered popular and policymaking imaginaries of the Arctic. Since the 1990s, the Arctic has become characterized by a cooperative governance regime that includes – through the efforts of Indigenous leaders, organizations, and activists – Indigenous peoples as permanent participants in regional institutions such as the Arctic Council, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, and Northern Forum. It is experiencing new transnational and indigenized forms of political authority and organization that create possibilities for post-colonial political communities that better reflect Indigenous priorities. Indigenous peoples in northern Canada and Norway thus challenge their respective states’ authority to impose decisions over Arctic lands and resources without their free, prior and informed consent. As such, Indigenous understandings of security challenge the centrality of the sovereign state and the interests of southern-based settler societies. Their understandings reflect more critical and environmentally sustainable conceptions of security in and for the Arctic region, and demonstrate attempts “to open up the study of environmental security by thinking critically about existing approaches, and beginning to think alternative possibilities” (Barnett, 2001, p. 156). But greater adoption of Indigenous understandings of Arctic security would not only benefit Indigenous peoples. In so far as they identify the importance of maintaining human-nature systems on which all Arctic inhabitants depend, and which also act as vital indicators of the health of the global biosphere, Indigenous conceptions of security would help to protect all people residing in the Arctic, and beyond.

Elsewhere, I have argued that dominant conceptions of Arctic security reflected by Arctic states are pathological in that they deviate from a healthy, efficient, or sustainable condition (Chater and Greaves, 2014). Of three distinct security pathologies – (re)militarization in the absence of a military threat; constrained inclusion of Indigenous peoples in regional governance; and hydrocarbon extraction in the context of the Anthropocene – the third has the gravest implications for local, regional, and global in/security. At the core of this pathology is the fact that human-caused climate change is enabling access to offshore hydrocarbon resources that, if extracted and burned, will further destabilize the Arctic environment and exacerbate the pace and severity of global climate change. In contrast, a critical approach to security would heed the scientific assessment “that all Arctic [energy] resources should be classified as unburnable,” and must remain unexploited if the planet is to avoid global temperature increase of more than 2° C (McGlade and Ekins, 2015, p. 190). Indeed, a critical perspective might question the 2-degree target set by states under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (Shaw, 2013), which presupposes twice as much global warming as has occurred since the industrial age. Current levels of warming are already sufficient to substantially alter the ecologies and societies of the circumpolar region; enabling hydrocarbon resource extraction that will ensure substantially greater warming cannot support conditions of sustainable security in the Arctic.


Environmental change in the Arctic reflects the broader global ecological crisis facing humanity and illustrates the challenges of addressing the link between security and the environment in the new geological era of the Anthropocene. A critical approach to security in the Arctic is necessary to account for the impacts of the changing environment on conditions of survival for people and communities in the Arctic and beyond. By contrast circumpolar states such as Canada and Norway have articulated conceptions of Arctic security that link the military defence of sovereign territory with the extraction of non-renewable resources. They embrace the economic opportunities afforded by climate change rather than viewing climate change as threatening the ecological basis that underpins their Arctic interests. Ironically, the practices mobilized by circumpolar states under the framework of Arctic security will only contribute to environmental change at the global, regional, and local levels. Moreover, how Canada and Norway have constructed their Arctic security interests contrasts with how Indigenous peoples inhabiting their Arctic regions understand the security implications of the changing environment, which they see as threatening their highest priorities: cultural and subsistence activities, the Indigenous identities built upon them, and the ecological systems upon which both depend.

The confluence of its distinct ecological, social, and political characteristics makes the Arctic unique, but it is not separate from the rest of the world. A critical approach to security and the environment connects security in the Arctic to the political and economic systems driving environmental change. While climate change poses significant challenges for the Arctic, the region’s role in regulating global climate systems also implicates it in maintaining ecological stability worldwide. This suggests that insecurity is inherent to any civilization that continues to rely upon hydrocarbon energy. The context of the Anthropocene thus poses profound normative questions for policymakers around the world, but especially in those countries that bear historical responsibility for climate change, and which are leading the development of new forms of hydrocarbon energy, including in the Arctic. Human insecurity as a result of climate change is a dilemma that must be confronted. One way to start would be to heed the security claims made by Indigenous peoples, and move towards a conception of Arctic security that supports human communities and the natural systems on which they depend, thus pursuing conditions of security that can actually be sustained.

Wilfrid Greaves is a PhD candidate (ABD) in the Department of Political Science and the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.  His doctoral research examines security and environmental change in the circumpolar Arctic, with a focus on Indigenous peoples and government policy in the northern regions of Canada and Norway.  A SSHRC Doctoral Scholar, Ontario Graduate Scholar, and DFAIT Graduate Fellow, he has authored articles on security theory, the Arctic, Canadian foreign policy, and natural resource extraction in International Journal, Journal of Canadian Studies, Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, and Critical Studies on Security, as well as multiple edited book chapters.