Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

The Geopolitics of Climate Change: Scenarios and Pathways for Arctic 2050

| July 06, 2023

Last month, the Arctic Initiative held a closed-door seminar for climate scientists, regional experts, Indigenous and youth leaders, and national security officials from six Arctic states. Our goal was to identify the most plausible scenarios (end-states) and pathways (path-dependent processes leading to end-states) for how geopolitics linked to climate change in the Arctic might evolve and identify actionable steps that the U.S. government might consider taking today to manage emerging risks. The event was conducted off the record, with a lively and wide-ranging discussion.

This report summarizes my key takeaways from the event for a public audience. I should emphasize that the group brought to bear a wide range of perspectives and did not seek to establish unanimous agreement on any specific items. The views below are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views or conclusions of any of the participants. 

The Outlook from 2023 

Climate change is already transforming the Arctic. Temperatures in the region are rising 3-4 times faster than the global average. Sea ice is trending down by every relevant metric, especially between April and September, opening new navigation routes and expanding access to marine resources. Permafrost thaw is impacting infrastructure across the region, increasing the risk of environmental accidents. Extreme weather events are on the rise. Sea level rise is accelerating, though its impacts will be global and longer-term in nature.

Under all plausible scenarios, global warming will continue, and the Arctic will keep warming faster than the global average. By mid-century, the frequency and severity of heatwaves, extreme precipitation and flooding, wildfires, disruption of marine food webs and fisheries, sea level rise and coastal inundation, droughts, and potentially climate-refugee flows are all likely to increase. The impacts on Arctic communities will be especially severe. Some will have to relocate. Others will have to adapt, at great cost and inconvenience. The rate of change for many impacts is forecast to increase in roughly linear fashion through mid-century—and to accelerate thereafter in the higher-emissions scenarios. In short, it is impossible to plan for the Arctic in 2050 without anticipating a future of dramatic climatic and geographic transformation.

However, our ability to forecast the future of climate change is also limited by several kinds of uncertainty. Uncertainty about the future pathway of global emissions means that there is no single baseline forecast for the extent of climate change by 2050 or any other year. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s scenarios range from extremely optimistic to extremely pessimistic. Within each emissions scenario, models yield different median estimates and levels of uncertainty. The IPCC’s middle emissions scenarios currently appear most likely, though it is impossible to have certainty. There is no single “tipping point” of warming for Arctic climate change. In short, the extent of long-term Arctic climate impacts depends largely on actions we take today, but climate change mitigation and adaptation are both essential and complementary strategies. The United States can and must invest in both. To build resilience, policymakers also need an organized framework for thinking about how climate change, and the steps they take in response to climate change, will interact with geopolitical and economic trends in the region.

Climate change is already affecting geopolitics, and countries are adapting their geopolitical strategies to take account of anticipated future climate change. Russia is leading in this regard, explicitly integrating climate change forecasts into its economic and national security strategies. Vladimir Putin has signaled that he sees the Arctic as an essential resource base and military stronghold for Russia in the decades ahead. Putin also seems to believe that unexploited hydrocarbon resources in the Arctic will be crucial for Russia’s economic future post-Ukraine. Scientists and industry participants are skeptical that this plan will succeed, but the exit of Western firms has removed pressure on Russian policymakers and firms to guard against Arctic environmental risks. Russian activity is increasing the probability of Arctic environmental disasters in the years ahead, including oil spills and radiological leakage.

The United States and its Arctic allies and partners cannot ignore Russia’s actions. As the war in Ukraine still rages, a future military confrontation between Russia and NATO in the Arctic cannot be ruled out. NATO faces the challenge of how to strengthen its defense structures and increase the frequency and scope of Arctic exercises without risking misperceptions and accidents that lead to conflict with Russia. Moscow’s diplomatic isolation and economic weakness may also force it to grant China a greater role in the development of the Northern Sea Route. A Chinese military presence in the Arctic is unlikely ever to serve Russian interests, but a prolonged Ukraine war, in which the Putin regime remains in power, likely points to deeper and broader Sino-Russian collaboration.

The Chinese Communist Party has its own view of the climate-geopolitics nexus. Chinese experts discuss direct impacts of climate change as a multi-dimensional national security threat. Across China, climate-induced natural disasters could potentially produce financial stress, migration, and even social unrest. Overseas, however, Chinese academic and policy literature hints that climate change is indirectly producing economic and geopolitical opportunities that China could exploit. The Arctic is seen as the region where climate-related opportunities are most obvious. China’s end-state vision for the Arctic is unclear—but commentary by Chinese politicians and scholars about the Arctic as a “new strategic frontier” imply that Beijing’s long-term aspiration is to play a role in rewriting and reshaping the Arctic’s existing governance rules and institutions. 

Climate science is an essential early step in China's longer-term strategy to become a “polar great power” (极地强国). In the short term, China has attempted to play Russia and the United States against each other as it expands its Arctic presence, but it has met resistance. China sees scientific collaboration as a pathway to establish a physical presence in the region without arousing suspicion from Arctic states. China also cites climate change as the legitimizing reason for its Arctic aspirations. To achieve China’s long-term aspirations, it needs a “strategic pivot point” (战略支点)—a port in the in the region that it substantially controls, in a country that would not abandon China in a crisis. Greenland, for several reasons, is the ideal candidate. The fact that prominent Chinese commentators have explicitly articulated this strategy poses a dilemma for the United States. China has a legitimate right to pursue peaceful scientific research in the Arctic, and scientific cooperation on climate-related issues benefits the entire international community. However, it would not serve U.S. interests if China manifested the rest of its strategy, using Russia or other regional proxies to insert itself into regional governance and asserting its own interests over those of circumpolar states and communities. 

Scenarios and Pathways

Based on the workshop discussions, I drew up four scenarios that reflect relatively optimistic and pessimistic outcomes for direct climate impacts and geopolitics. The scenarios are summarized in a 2x2 matrix below.

All four scenarios assume that global emissions follow one of the IPCC’s middle emissions pathways (RCP 4.5 and 6), that global climate financing remains inadequate, and that geopolitical competition among the United States, China, and Russia rises. Détente between any two probably means more intense competition with the third. None of these assumptions are certain, of course, and tail risks cannot be excluded. However, the 2x2 matrix is a helpful first step in thinking about potential climate-geopolitics interactions. 

Arctic geopolitics scenarios matrix

Figure 1. Scenarios matrix.

1. A Stable but Bifurcated Arctic

In the first scenario, global emissions peak in the 2030s. By 2050, emissions are falling fast, though the world remains far from net zero—in line with the IPCC’s relatively optimistic RCP 4.5. In the shorter term, the Arctic continues to warm rapidly, and geopolitical tensions worsen.  As “Cold War II” between the United States and China enters its fourth decade, economic globalization keeps unraveling. Moscow and Beijing draw closer together, conducting joint military exercises and expanding Arctic economic cooperation. The Russian Arctic becomes highly militarized. Western vessels cannot transit the NSR without risking harassment or worse. The Arctic Council and Russia remain estranged, making unanimity impossible even on routine issues. Private-sector interest in Arctic resource extraction grows, particularly for fish and minerals. More ports are built, and the governance of the Bering Strait becomes a key issue.

2. Climate and Conflict

This scenario envisions both higher geopolitical tensions and exacerbated climate change (RCP 6.0). By 2050, the Arctic witnesses more frequent and severe natural disasters, including coastal erosion, floods, land subsidence, and wildfires, and the long-term outlook after 2050 looks even more dire. Some major economies all but give up on mitigation and turn their focus to adaptation, mainly outside the Arctic. Arctic infrastructure proves even less resilient than feared, particularly in Russia, leading to oil spills. Many Arctic communities, starved of resources or flooded out, are forced to relocate. Multilateral Arctic institutions face virtual collapse, and Indigenous groups lose their voice. Arctic infrastructure, including ports, LNG facilities, and satellite ground stations, become potential military targets, and private sector interest declines.

3. Managed Competition

This scenario imagines a relatively optimistic outcome for both climate change and geopolitics. The United States and China find a way to manage their long-term competition without outright conflict. Arctic communities leverage the U.S.-China rivalry to bargain for climate-related assistance. U.S. domestic politics evolve and the country becomes a leader on clean energy and climate engagement in multilateral organizations. China positions itself as provider of climate-resilient infrastructure and know-how. Russia’s economy still relies heavily on resource extraction, but its leaders are forced to make painful reforms and seek technical assistance from China and the West. With U.S. acquiescence, China mediates between the Arctic 7 and Russia, with Chinese scientists collaborating with both sides. The Arctic Council meaningfully re-engages Russia, and China becomes a major Arctic player. The global green transition reduces private sector interest in Arctic hydrocarbon resources, but fisheries, minerals, and shipping emerge as key growth industries.

4. Resource Rush

In the final scenario, global emissions head towards the relatively high RCP 6.0, but the world’s major economies turn their focus to adaptation. The United States and China build guardrails on their rivalry in the 2030s. Economic competition is more ferocious than ever, but the risk of great power war is reduced. Washington and Beijing force Moscow to rein in its geopolitical ambitions, re-engage with the global system, and open its economy to foreign investment. A wave of foreign investment shores up the collapsing Russian economy, but Moscow lacks the state capacity for effective regulation. The Western bloc and China compete economically for Arctic resources essential to the green transition, both on land and offshore on the seabed, disrupting ecosystems. Indigenous communities seek profit-sharing from the infrastructure construction and new activity in the region. Commercial interests gain increasing influence over the policies of several Arctic states.

A Roadmap for Policy

All Arctic and non-Arctic states have a common interest in preserving a robust and inclusive rules-based order, with free passage through the Bering Strait and protocols to prevent and, if necessary, respond to environmental disasters. Without such a regional order, it is unlikely that private enterprises will be able to develop the Arctic’s fisheries, mineral, and hydrocarbon resources. However, as these four plausible scenarios illustrate, it is distinctly possible that the Arctic situation in 2050 will be sub-optimal from the perspective of every interested state.

To help steer events towards more constructive scenarios, the U.S. government could consider several policies. Domestically, it could deepen and broaden horizontal discussion between federal and state agencies with a stake in the Arctic and expand block grants to Indigenous Arctic communities to support adaptation. Several additional icebreakers are probably necessary to establish a suitable maritime presence along Alaska’s long Arctic coastline.

As the United States prepares to adapt to Arctic climate change and plans for geopolitical and climate contingencies, it will need to be transparent and candid with other states about its intentions. It should acknowledge that climate change will have direct and indirect geopolitical impacts and clarify how it plans to balance these concerns while seeking mutual reassurance with strategic rivals. The Arctic community will not benefit if Russia is permanently ostracized from the Arctic Council, so the United States should seek informal contacts to explore re-engagement on specific issues. The U.S. government should also seek to engage and collaborate with China on polar science to the extent practically possible, acknowledging that efforts to shut China out of the region entirely risk deepening the Sino-Russian partnership.

Above all, my key takeaway from the event it that is not premature for the United States to start preparing for Arctic climate-geopolitical futures. The future of the Arctic will not be dictated by any single country or dominated by any single trend. It will emerge over time as various actors observe the situation, plan ahead, and react to one another through time. We cannot be sure that it is possible to avert the worst case-scenarios. However, by thinking systematically about path-dependencies and the cascading potentialities of our actions, we might just be able to change the balance of probabilities and nudge the arc of history in a more constructive direction.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Freymann, Eyck.“The Geopolitics of Climate Change: Scenarios and Pathways for Arctic 2050.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, July 6, 2023.

The Author