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The Geosciences and Future Foreign Policy
John A. Kelmelis

Wars throughout time have been fought over land and resources, with the earth sciences providing a foundation for foreign policies. One can easily imagine prehistoric human bands negotiating or competing for the use of prime flint resources or important fishing or hunting grounds.

Findings in science can be highly reliable or tenuous. Similarly, they can have foreign policy implications or not. Often, this information goes unnoticed until a crisis occurs or it becomes obvious that an opportunity has been missed. Now, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Department of State have paired up in a project to identify emerging earth science findings that are both reliable and have foreign policy implications.

As societies have become more complex, their ability to alter the environment has grown along with their need to access Earth’s resources. The repercussions of changes, whether natural or human-induced, have also grown in that they affect more people. Regional changes can have a global reach. To keep up with these changes, nations have created regimes for exchanging or sharing resources and protecting the environment on which we all depend. These regimes can be bilateral or multilateral and are of a wide variety. For example, according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, more than 3,600 treaties have dealt with different aspects of international waters since A.D. 805. Other examples include the Antarctic Treaty and the Biodiversity Convention.

Likewise, the United States has relied on earth science information to help form or implement foreign policies throughout its history. For instance, the promise of riches from Earth’s resources helped drive the Louisiana Purchase and the acquisition of Alaska. Today, the USGS global energy and minerals assessments help define U.S. foreign policy. And new findings in the geosciences can help identify future foreign policy opportunities or needs.

For example, increasingly strong evidence supports Arctic warming. Measurable glacier retreat, Arctic ice sheet thinning, increases in days where Arctic waters are navigable, fewer days where roads on permafrost are useable and many other bits of evidence exist that could help shape policies worldwide related to climate.

The consequences of a warming Arctic can affect our national economy, security and safety. Some major petroleum resources may become more accessible, while current techniques for mining those resources may have to change to meet the challenges of a changing environment. These techniques may require new industrial standards and arrangements with other nations. The Arctic sea route may become open for enough of the year to make it a reliable and economical transportation route, which would cut the travel distance from northern Europe to Japan by as much as 45 percent. Costs would be reduced, but new agreements may be necessary with the Arctic nations whose national waters would be traversed.

Arctic warming also poses some interesting questions: With opening sea routes, will new opportunities open for terrorists to disrupt thousands of miles of unguarded pipelines? With new potential fishing grounds and sea transportation routes, will new requirements be placed on U.S. Coast Guard and Navy ships to provide search and rescue capabilities, or to increase their capacity for environmental cleanup if there is an accident? Numerous other foreign policy issues will arise as well.

Another area of potential interest for the new USGS-State Department partnership is methane hydrates, which were theorized in the 19th century, later produced as a laboratory curiosity and then discovered in nature in the 1970s. Estimates of their energy content range from more than all other fossil fuels combined on the high end, to several times the known natural gas reserves on the low end. Either way, considerable clean-burning methane is stored in hydrates, if it can be tapped.

The international Mallik project in Canada’s Mackenzie Delta demonstrated technological feasibility of extracting methane hydrates in November 2003. It remains to be seen, however, if it is economically feasible and environmentally safe to extract this resource on scales sufficient to affect energy markets. Still, several relevant policy questions arise: Which nations would benefit if methane hydrates became feasible as an energy source? Would all nations’ conditions rise with a rising tide of clean energy? Would the balance of economics, power or trade shift, and how long would it take to do so? What would U.S. foreign policy be without its dependence on Middle Eastern oil?

These areas of study are not new to earth scientists or policy-makers. Some aspects of these findings are being considered by the foreign policy community now, and the earth science community can help identify many other natural science findings that have potential implications to foreign policy.

The increasing effort to identify emerging scientific findings is part of a recognition in the foreign-policy community that science plays an important role in its work. However, a mutually recognized cultural gap exists between the scientific and the foreign policy communities. The new partnership is part of the effort to bridge that gap.

Merely exposing scientists to foreign policy or exposing diplomats to science, though, is not sufficient. We must expand the existing dialog and find creative ways to assess the importance of scientific findings to international relations, as well as find ways to incorporate those assessments into foreign policy planning.

Only then can science help meet the U.S. foreign policy goals to achieve peace and security, advance sustainable development and global interests, promote international understanding, and strengthen diplomatic and other program capabilities. The alternative is to ignore science and suffer from missed opportunities or worse: negative results, such as destabilized nations and regions, increased humanitarian crises, environmental degradation and economic losses.


Kelmelis is a senior science advisor at the U.S. Geological Survey and is on detail to the U.S. Department of State as the Senior Counselor for Earth Science. E-mail: jkelmeli@usgs.gov and kelmelisja@state.gov.

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