Climate change is a constant subject of political discourse in the United States. Between activist protests, political debates, and natural disasters, rarely a day goes by without a climate-focused story. The newest involves a World Meteorological Association study showing a 66% chance in the coming years to break the 1.5C mark, viewed as a problematic degree of warming. According to the study, exceeding this limit would result in extreme heat, sea level rise, and dangers to food security. If these dire predictions are true, what does it mean for geopolitics? For one, it will change the geopolitical calculus, altering the regional balance. Sea level rise is caused by the melting of sea ice, impacting not only low-lying areas, but also those formerly icebound. These heretofore impassable routes could become usable for commerce, competition, and conflict. At the heart of this new world of geopolitics is a region most strategists ignore: the Arctic.

Geopolitical competition in the Arctic is not new but rather has been ongoing for nearly 500 years. The hunt for the fabled Northwest Passage – a route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, passing above North America and short-cutting the voyage to the Orient – was called the last great challenge of the age by European explorers. Traversing it was many an adventurer’s proverbial white whale, labeled by the 16th century English privateer-explorer Martin Frobisher as “the only thing of the world that was left yet undone, whereby a notable mind might be made famous and fortunate.” Discovering this route would have a major geopolitical impact for the then-underdog English. Not only would it create new markets for its trade, but it would break the monopoly of the Spanish and Portuguese, who had dominated the New World since 1492. Despite the best efforts of Frobisher and others, the Northwest Passage remained untraversed until famed polar pioneer Roald Amundsen completed the journey in 1906.

Other geopolitical contests have occurred in the Arctic as well. There was a quest to discover the partner of the Northwest Passage, known as the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which runs the length of Russia from the Bering Sea to the Barents Sea. Easier to navigate than the hazardous Northwest Passage, it was first traversed by the Swedish Vega mission in 1879, requiring only a single winter versus Amundsen’s three in the Northwest Passage. The NSR was less of a focus than its opposite number, mostly due to it lying within Russian territorial waters. Still, this alternate passage from Europe to Asia is a crucial one for the future of Arctic competition.

The Arctic has hosted its fair share of warfare. In the Russian Civil War that followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Russia’s far north was important battleground. The Arctic-adjacent ports of Murmansk and Archangelsk, used throughout World War I to supply Russian armies, were key targets for the Bolsheviks. Their advances on the region were met by an international military expedition led by the Americans and British. After over a year of combat, the Allied forces left the region to Communist conquest. The Soviet Union militarized the Arctic during the Cold War, patrolling with submarines and icebreakers, as well as setting up floating stations from which it could conduct electronic surveillance. The US and Canada pushed against these moves, but the theater was less important to Washington than it was Moscow.

In the short-lived era of good feelings after the Cold War, peace and cooperation reigned. In 1996, the Arctic Council – an international organization connecting Arctic nations with interested observers and native communities – was founded in this spirit. Its permanent members include all eight Arctic states: Canada, the United States, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. The goal was to foster comity in the region, determining commercial usage, fishing rights, and environmental protection. This idealistic approach has been severely disrupted by recent events.

The past year has seen drastic geopolitical changes that have impacted the Arctic. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine took place during its rotating presidency of the Arctic Council, throwing it into chaos. Now that it is Norway’s turn at the helm, some seek to reconstitute the group with Russia, but this will be harder than it looks. Not only has Russia’s militarism shown it to be an untrustworthy actor, it has united the remainder of the Arctic states in NATO. Denmark is seeking tighter security ties with these fellow Arctic states, and it is possible that greater NATO cooperation in the region is close behind.

Despite the economic and military hits it has taken, Russia is still the top dog in the Arctic. This is not surprising given its history and geography, but it is bad for American interests. Russia leads the Arctic militarily and is seeking to do so commercially as well. It has the world’s largest icebreaker fleet, numbering at least 46 vessels, used to open waterways, patrol militarily, and conduct scientific surveys. It is the only nation to field nuclear-powered versions of these important ships. Even with climate change, icebreakers are necessary to navigate the Arctic and create passages for non-specialized ships. Russia plans to expand this fleet, seeing the Arctic as a domain it can control and use to exert pressure on its enemies.

Russia also leads in Arctic infrastructure and commercial development. It sees the Northern Sea Route as an economic boon and is investing in making that a reality. It pitches the route as a faster, easier way to bring products from Asia to Europe. The Arctic routes are – when well-maintained – wide, deep, and very difficult to get stuck in, unlike the main alternative, the Suez Canal. Russia has been investing heavily through state-directed enterprises in permanent port, transit, and energy infrastructure, hoping to accelerate the competitiveness of the NSR. The Arctic has the potential to be a significant source of fossil fuels, something else the Russians are exploiting. They are building pipelines, rigs, and other energy infrastructure, much of which they claim can be constructed even under harsh Western sanctions. Developing the NSR into a viable commercial route could give Moscow leverage over a growing portion of world trade – a strategy that China has already embraced.

The People’s Republic has its own designs on an Arctic presence, in spite of latitude. It has been an Arctic Council observer since 2013 and has long sought involvement in the region. Now, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, that mission has gained a prominent strategic edge. China has two icebreakers already, is investing in more, and seeks its own nuclear-powered Arctic fleet. This has only further aligned Beijing with Moscow in a bid to consolidate control over the polar region. They have signed security cooperation agreements, bringing China’s Coast Guard – notorious for harassing foreign vessels – to assist its Russian counterpart. They are creating joint research stations in the region, establishing potential dual-use facilities. And Russia is enticing Chinese commercial investment in energy, mining, and transport ventures.

This burgeoning partnership has left the US a straggler in the race for polar power. Despite being an Arctic nation since the 1867 purchase of Alaska, the US has deprioritized the region. Americans have no conception of themselves as an Arctic country. That failure of imagination has led to skimping on investment – our two aging icebreakers are in chronic disrepair – and  a lack of strategic vision. Additionally, only one state is located in the Arctic, and it is noncontiguous with the rest of the country. Those factors, combined with America’s federal system, has led DC policymakers to silo Arctic policy as a state issue. It has assigned icebreakers to the Coast Guard, an institution which falls under the aegis of Homeland Security, not Defense. American politicians generally see the Arctic in environmental or energy terms, marginalizing the strategic stakes. This is a terrible approach in a time of rising geopolitical temperatures.

To rectify these unforced errors and build a stronger Arctic position, we need to do six things. First, the US must fully fund its construction of new icebreakers. There are already plans for several modern ships, which is a good start, but Congress should ensure that they have dedicated funding instead of relying on the whims of the annual appropriations process. Next, we should move the Arctic portfolio from the realm of Homeland Security to that of Defense. Doing so would put the appropriate emphasis on the region’s strategic importance, allow icebreakers to work more closely with naval ships, and better coordinate policy. This could be accomplished in multiple ways, but the easiest would be to raise the head of the Coast Guard to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and include it in planning and operations. Congress should also appoint and fund a permanent ambassador to the Arctic Council, a long-overdue action that would show our resolve and safeguard American interests.

Our Arctic security strategies must be updated to cope with the new realities of the Russo-Ukrainian War and Sino-Russian partnership. This means coldly assessing our readiness – or lack thereof – and presenting that information to Congress to help craft policy. Another positive step would be growing our partnerships with our Arctic and near-Arctic allies. The accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO is very useful here, and we should broaden the alliance’s Arctic focus so as to deal with all strategic dimensions of the Russian threat. Finally, the Navy should conduct more freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the Arctic to demonstrate our resolve to keep it an open ocean. If the NSR does indeed solicit commercial traffic, American vessels should not hesitate to use it and allow the Russians to demonstrate their good faith.

These are sober steps to move towards a stronger position in the region and close the gap between ourselves and our rivals. The Arctic is critical to American national security and broader geopolitics, and will only become more salient if climate change melts sea ice. If we are serious about the potential impacts of global warming, we should focus less on electrifying military vehicles and more on building nuclear icebreakers. Future generations will thank us.