So Russia planted a titanium flag in the sea floor at the North Pole. Its citizens celebrated, spurred on by propaganda on state-owned media. Canada scoffed at its Arctic neighbor's "15th Century" land grab tactics. It made front-page news around the world.
The Evil Empire overtones are unmistakable here in the states, with our old enemy using nuclear submarines in a race to the top of the world to make an early claim to supposed oil wealth buried there. But the spectacle is only part of this story. The other part is dead serious.
Global warming is melting the Arctic, which is why Russia is suddenly interested in planting flags in a very public way. The effects of global warming are usually discussed as environmental problems (species being squeezed into extinction as they fail to adapt to unprecedented environmental change), human health problems (as new tropical diseases emerge, for instance, in sub-tropical and temperate zones) or economic problems (how would New York pay to build levies to wall off a higher sea with more frequent storms and intense storm surges?).
The angle less discussed is geopolitical. It has to do with national security, global dominance and warfare. Some of our top generals have been ringing this alarm bell, but it's not ringing loudly.
Global warming changes environmental conditions on the ground. In the Arctic, Russia will compete with the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway for control over fisheries, shipping lanes and whatever fossil fuels can be extracted from the icy north. Meanwhile, environmental changes wrought by global warming in oil-rich parts of the world like Nigeria and the Middle East could make those areas even more volatile.
That oil and gas, by the way, could become even more coveted if worrying signs that the world has hit a "peak oil" production prove true.
Peak oil, in short, is the theory that once the world has extracted about half the available reserves of the finite fossil fuel, demand will begin exceeding supply, as the rate of production drops off. America's wealth and power have been built largely on affordable oil, but it hit its domestic peak in 1970 and isn't prepared -- according to the government's own analysis -- to offset its oil use anytime soon. China's demand is growing apace with its rocketing economic development.
Russia already has commanded a new position as a global power, some 15 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, in part because of its control over fossil fuel reserves.
So as the twin influences of global warming and the world's dwindling supplies of oil coincide, the scramble for the remaining oil reserves could prove to be much more than the kind of posturing we're witnessing from Russia. They could lead to war.
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