2011 Charney Lecture explores impact of climate change in Arctic region

Feb 4, 2011

David Caron first visited the Arctic region in the mid-1970s as a salvage diver for the U.S. Coast Guard. Today, Caron still cherishes a compelling interest in the Arctic region. He is the C. William Maxeiner Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, where he co-directs the Law of the Sea Institute, an international consortium of scholars that has played a major part in studies of ocean law since the 1970s, and he is also president of the American Society of International Law. He delivered the 2011 Jonathan I. Charney Lecture in International Law, “Three Images of the Arctic and the Law and Politics They Suggest,” on February 3 in conjunction with a conference hosted by the Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, “Foreign State Immunity at Home and Abroad,” held February 4.

Caron characterized the changing physical and political landscapes in the Arctic by presenting three images: the frozen, sparsely populated and largely inaccessible Arctic of recorded history; today’s Arctic, which is undergoing an extremely rapid transition due to global warming and where the Arctic Ocean is already navigable part of the year; and the Arctic of the near future, when the polar ice cap will disappear entirely each summer, creating a region that is more amenable to commercial development. “The first image of the Arctic has dominated our vision for centuries, and in a true sense, this image is gone,” Caron said. The image of the Arctic as an inhospitable “area of pristine isolation” where “valuable resources may exist, but their exploitation is either not technically possible or not commercially viable” is now being replaced by a perception of the Arctic as a region with rich and untapped oil reserves and fisheries that can be exploited.

In his lecture, Caron discussed the implications of a more accessible Arctic region to the five nations that immediately border the Arctic Ocean – Russia, Canada, the United States, Norway and Denmark through its sovereignty over Greenland; to Sweden, Finland and Iceland, whose close proximity to the Arctic Ocean makes its future important, and to other countries worldwide which have an interest in the region’s resources. “Perhaps by 2030, maybe as early as 2020, in September, there will be no polar ice,” Caron said. “It’s important to appreciate that this semi-enclosed ocean is five times larger than the Mediterranean.”

The Arctic Council, comprised of the eight nations in the Arctic region, is currently the only form of pan-Arctic governance, Caron said, and a host of issues related to resources such as fish and oil, boundaries, coastal development, environmental concerns and seaways are arising. Climate change in the Arctic region is occurring so rapidly, according to Caron, that “sometimes images of the past, present and future exist in the same person’s mind concurrently.” To guide international policy development, he asserted, “It’s important to get people to recognize” the three separate images of the Arctic as the region continues its transformation from a forbidding, inaccessible environment to one in which coastal and commercial development is possible.

Caron also discussed models for governing the region, noting that while most countries around the globe advocate treaty-based governance for the region similar to that of Antarctica, “The five circumpolar nations don’t want a treaty with the rest of the world.” In the past, when the Arctic was inaccessible, its governance not a major issue. Currently, Caron said, “If we think of authority, the Arctic is divided basically under national jurisdiction, and the five nations with Arctic boundaries are happy with that map.” A key point to consider as governance of the Arctic region becomes a more pressing issue, is that “not all states are equal,” he said. “In terms of coastline and by any other metric, Russia dominates.” Norway has already developed an advanced plan for managing its resources in the Arctic, and Russia – which, as Caron noted, “has all of the natural harbors” as well as four major rivers that flow into the Arctic – is exploring the possibility that it will be able to “open up Siberia in a way that hasn’t happened.”

With the Arctic Council, which is a “cooperative organization that works by consensus,” as the “only real governance structure” currently in place, Caron said, the way the Arctic Region will be governed in the future is as uncertain as all of the ways in which climate change will ultimately affect the region.

An expert in international law, Caron teaches public international law, resolution of private international disputes, and ocean law and policy at Berkeley Law. He is chair of the Advisory Board for the Institute of Transnational Arbitration of the Center for American and International Law and a member of the U.S. Department of State Advisory Committee on Public International Law. He earned his undergraduate degree at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

The Jonathan I. Charney Distinguished Lecture in International Law honors former Vanderbilt University Law School Professor Jonathan I. Charney, one of the world's preeminent experts on international law, who held the Lee S. & Charles A. Speir Chair at the law school until his death in 2002.

“I chose to speak about the Arctic because Jon would have liked it,” Caron said, noting that he had studied with Charney, who was a widely respected expert in the law of the sea. “Jon was a generous man and generous to me when I was a law student. The best way to describe him is a quote from Elliott Richardson [a Harvard-trained attorney noted for his personal integrity who served in the administrations of Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and Carter]: ‘There was a time when the seas seemed endless and the sky vast enough to swallow any of the mistakes and errors of men. Now the world is small, and men must be big.’ Jon was a big man for our times.”

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