The scramble for the Arctic and the region's role in the fight for energy security


BOOK OF THE DAY: The Future History of the ArcticBy Charles Emmerson, The Bodley Head, 419pp, £20

ONE MIGHT expect from the title that this is a book about climate change and, indeed, a succinct and exemplary summary of the expected effects of global warming on the Arctic is presented in an early chapter.

However, the author is mainly concerned with a broader theme – the increasing international competition for natural resources in a warming Arctic and the impact of this geopolitical struggle on the region and on the rest of the globe.

Long at the margins of geographic and political affairs, the Arctic may be destined to play a central role in three major issues that will challenge the world in the 21st century: climate change and its uncertain consequences, energy security and competition for territory and resources between several great nations.

In order to consider the future, one must first understand the past and, in The Future History of the Arctic, Charles Emmerson, a geopolitics expert and Associate Director of the World Economic Forum, gives a comprehensive overview of the history and possible future of the region, revealing a vast and complex area rife with opportunity and challenges.

He gives a detailed description of the contribution of the many nations that have shaped the Arctic’s history (Canada, the United States, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Russia to name but a few) and introduces the players who are currently struggling to determine its future.

Throughout the book, ample evidence is provided that the common view of the Arctic as a remote, unchanging region is wrong historically, geographically and politically.

The scope of Emmerson’s book is immense; in particular, he presents a fascinating comparison of the history of the development of energy resources around the world by Russia and the United States, contrasting the challenges thrown up by the centrist, state- driven approach of the former (with the exception of the Yeltsin years) with those presented by the profit-driven approach of corporate America.

The importance of such energy resources in international affairs is explained in detail – for example, the analysis of Russia’s growing dominance on European energy markets makes for uncomfortable reading, as does the more familiar dependence of the US on Middle Eastern oil.

A fascinating feature of the book is the overview of the potential and limitations of the Alaskan oil and gas fields for the US.

In another chapter, the author presents compelling evidence that the Norwegian semi-state approach has been far more successful from the point of view of energy efficiency, national wealth creation and the achievement of a good balance between development and the conservation of the environment.

Will the Norwegian model serve as a template for the development of Arctic resources by the larger nations?

The author considers this critical question in detail, bringing his vast knowledge of Russian, American and European politics to bear – sadly, he concludes that realpolitik will probably prevent the adoption of the Norwegian approach by the major powers.

Emmerson presents a definitive account of the past and probable future of a fascinating part of the globe. He is convincing in his thesis that, just as the Arctic will likely experience the most pronounced effects of climate change, it will almost certainly play an important role in future international energy security and global politics.

He is also probably right to see developments in the region as a microcosm of future geopolitical change around the world, as the twin problems of energy security and climate change begin to press home.

Definitive yet highly readable, this book will be an absorbing read for anyone with an interest in geopolitics and world affairs.

Cormac O’Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology.