There is no place in the world where global warming is having a more profound effect than the Arctic.
In recent years, we have witnessed the rapid disappearance of Arctic ice. Over the past two decades, the region has lost an area of thick ice roughly one and a half times the size of Alaska.
These changes have had serious impacts on the environment; they also have significant implications for U.S. foreign policy, and for national security as well as the economy.
Yet, despite the growing importance of the region, the Arctic has been a comparatively low priority on Capitol Hill. That should change.
A top national priority should be to address the root cause of global warming by reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. We should also work cooperatively with other nations in the UN climate change framework.
As the scientific community has repeatedly warned us, our failure to act quickly and decisively on global warming could have catastrophic consequences.
For example, receding ice could release massive quantities of methane gas trapped in the permafrost. Methane is a greenhouse gas 20 times more effective in trapping heat than carbon dioxide.
The more the ice recedes, the more methane is released, thus causing more ice to melt. Once we get trapped in this vicious cycle, it will be very difficult to get out.
Strangely enough, disappearing ice in the Arctic may also create commercial opportunities. It could transform the Arctic into a major transit route for global shipping. Trips from Japan to Europe could be cut by days. Shipping costs could be reduced up to 20 percent.
How will the U.S. protect these new sea lanes and the surrounding environment? The changes expand the responsibilities of the Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy.
The disappearance of ice could also unlock the region’s abundant natural resources. By some estimates, the Arctic could hold as much as 22 percent of the undiscovered, recoverable energy resources in the world, including 90 billion barrels of oil.
American and foreign companies are lining up to develop these resources. For example, in 2007 a Norwegian company launched the first commercial energy operations in the Arctic, and now shipping liquefied natural gas from Norway to American consumers.
Due in large part to commercial interests, the Arctic coastal nations of Canada, Russia, Norway, Demark, and the United States are attempting to claim precious territory. But there are several areas of dispute.
Canada, Norway, and Russia have disagreements over the extent of the Eurasian continental shelf. And the United States has differences with our close ally, Canada, on the Northwest Passage, the Beaufort Sea, and a number of other unresolved territorial disputes. How will we work with these countries to settle overlapping claims?
Climate change in the Arctic is also having a profound effect on animal and human life.
Polar bears have experienced weight loss and birth rate declines due to the loss of ice floes. Fish that normally inhabit warmer waters in the south are moving north. And fish that already live in the Arctic waters are moving even further north.
Indigenous people who have relied on sea ice for travel and hunting for generations have been forced to change their age-old traditions.
All of these issues and questions are complicated. That’s why it’s important for the United States to address them comprehensively, and in cooperation with other countries.
Shortly before he left office, President Bush issued a directive on U.S. Arctic policy -- the first update since 1994. It covers a wide range of policies, from protecting national security to involving indigenous people in decision-making to ensuring the environmental sustainability of natural resources.
Does this directive reflect the right policy? How should Congress prioritize issues related to the Arctic?
I believe Arctic conservation should be at the top of the agenda. I recently joined over 60 of my colleagues in sending a letter to President Obama recommending that he employ a science- based approach to safeguard this fragile region and manage U.S. activities.
That letter also calls for the suspension of new industrial activity in the Arctic until a comprehensive Arctic conservation and energy plan has been completed.
It’s clear that we still have much to learn about the changes occurring in the region. And it will be difficult to gather the data we need unless we increase our capabilities.
The U.S. faces a drastic shortage of personnel and equipment in the region. The Coast Guard has only two temporary Arctic stations to cover an area one and a half times that of the United States. It could take hours just to reach a ship in distress.
We have only two polar ice breakers deployed and a third in mothballs. By comparison, Russia has 20 ice breakers, including seven that are nuclear powered.
Other Arctic countries are rapidly increasing their capabilities in the region. Canada is building an Arctic Training Center, expanding its northern armed forces, and plans to upgrade a deepwater port in Nunavut.
And Russia intends to spend billions of dollars to double the capacity of its port in Murmansk by 2015. The U.S. is far behind in this new race to the North Pole.
But good Arctic stewardship requires more than enhancing capabilities. It requires cooperation.
Last May, the United States and the other four coastal Arctic states met in Ilulissat, Greenland and agreed to work cooperatively to settle any overlapping regional claims. They also concluded there is no compelling need for a comprehensive, international regime to govern the Arctic.
The U.S. has also been working through the Arctic Council – a group of eight Arctic nations and representatives of various indigenous groups -- to address environmental and developmental issues. But the Council’s decisions are not binding.
Experts, such as Dr. Borgerson whom we have here today, argue that a new governance structure is needed.
Other experts believe the United States should first ratify the Law of the Sea Convention. In practice, the U.S. government abides by the convention, but is not a party to it. As a result, we are missing an opportunity to work cooperatively with Arctic nations in determining territorial boundaries.
The United States faces many challenges and opportunities in the Arctic. We can try to engage other Arctic countries to address these issues through peaceful cooperation, or sit on the sidelines and risk a Hobbesian free-for-all that could further damage the environment and place the U.S. at a commercial disadvantage. I think the choice is clear.
During her confirmation hearing, Secretary Clinton said the Arctic “offers a chance for cooperation that might lead not only to positive actions with respect to the Arctic, but deepen our partnerships with Russia and others across the board.”
I agree with Secretary Clinton and hope our conversation today will help highlight areas of common purpose with our Arctic neighbors while providing guidance for U.S. Arctic policy.
Energy & Environment Daily