Turning Up the Heat on Emerging Arctic Challenges

Secretary Clinton Leads Delegation to Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting

The threats facing the Arctic region are mounting and the time to take unified action against them is now, writes Kiley Kroh.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet.  Warming seas mean less ice, which means increased access for shipping, fishing, and oil and gas extraction in one of the last unexploited regions of the planet. (AP/Kike Calvo)
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Warming seas mean less ice, which means increased access for shipping, fishing, and oil and gas extraction in one of the last unexploited regions of the planet. (AP/Kike Calvo)

Today, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar will attend the 7th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting. Clinton will be the first secretary of state to ever attend an Arctic Council meeting, underscoring its importance for achieving substantive agreements on the myriad challenges facing the region.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Warming seas mean less ice, which means increased access for shipping, fishing, and oil and gas extraction in one of the last unexploited regions of the planet. The council has not kept pace with the rate of change occurring in the region to date and, as a result, there is an overwhelming lack of unified, strategic management structures, particularly on the issues of climate change and drilling in the Arctic.

At the meeting, member states—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden, as well as representatives of the Arctic indigenous populations—will address several issues regarding the role of the council and how these nations can work together to address the effect the rapidly changing Arctic will continue to have on the environmental, economic, and national security interests of each nation. The formal agenda includes the signing of an Arctic search-and-rescue coordination treaty—noteworthy as the first legally binding agreement to be signed by the eight member nations—which will hopefully pave the way for similar agreements on more controversial issues.

Climate change

One such contentious concern is the impact of climate change on the Arctic. The Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic assessment, conducted by the council’s scientific arm, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, found that observed effects of climate change in the Arctic are much more extensive and rapid than scientists predicted. CAP’s Joe Romm commented on this groundbreaking report:

The Arctic Ocean is projected to become nearly ice-free in summer within this century, likely within the next thirty to forty years. … loss of ice and snow in the Arctic enhances climate warming by increasing absorption of the sun’s energy at the surface of the planet. It could also dramatically increase emissions of carbon dioxide and methane and change large-scale ocean currents. The combined outcome of these effects is not yet known. 

Perhaps the most alarming finding in the report is the prediction that sea level will rise up to 5.2 feet by 2100. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted 7 to 23 inches of sea-level rise in 2007 but didn’t count the effect of vast amounts of melting ice in Greenland. This dramatic shift will have untold ramifications for the hundreds of millions of people living in coastal communities around the world. 

The time has now passed for the council to launch further task forces or commission more studies into the matter. Dealing with climate change in the short term will require concrete commitments from every Arctic Council member nation to aggressively curb greenhouse gas emissions. This Ministerial, with the added influence of Secretary Clinton, provides the ideal forum for such a commitment. 

Offshore drilling 

Another critical discussion item will be Secretary Clinton’s push for an Arctic oil spill response task force. Almost a fifth of the world’s remaining oil and gas is thought to lie north of the Arctic Circle, much of it offshore, and with gas prices rising, oil companies are eager to tap into the potential riches. The Arctic, however, is unlike any other region in which these companies are currently drilling.  Twenty-foot swells, subzero temperatures, weather that can ground aircraft for days or weeks, and a complete lack of infrastructure make a spill of any size more likely and nearly impossible to clean up. 

A spill anywhere in the Arctic could take years to clean up and would be catastrophic to the entire region. Cairn, a Scottish company, recently won approval to begin drilling four wells this year in Greenland—the first exploration to take place off the country’s coast in a decade. As Ben Ayliffe of Greenpeace International points out, “It took BP months to stop Macondo, with a fleet of 6,500 ships, with 50,000 people and a bill of about $40 billion.” Cairn, valued at about $9.8 billion, “is not the sort of company that can afford to take a $40 billion hit on an oil spill.” 

Like climate change, developing a unified, responsible policy on offshore drilling is an agenda item that cannot wait any longer. Royal Dutch Shell submitted “risky” plans to the U.S. Department of the Interior just last week seeking permission for four exploratory wells over the next two years in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska’s North Slope. And the company has plans to file requests for up to six more wells in the Chukchi Sea off the western coast of Alaska. Shell has invested billions of dollars into exploring Arctic drilling, without a demonstrated ability to adequately respond to a spill

Oil companies are primed to drive their drill bits into the Arctic and will not wait for the council or any other governing body to deliberate their course of action. Secretary Clinton must leverage her considerable clout to obtain a responsible, multiyear contingency plan to manage the onslaught of offshore drilling in the Arctic. Pressing the issue even further is the fact that this week, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives will continue debate on a trio of sweeping offshore drilling bills. The legislation would completely disregard the lessons learned in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and instead open up enormous areas of the outer continental shelf to drilling, with expedited permitting and no increased safety measures.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

One issue that will not be discussed formally is the failure of the United States to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. Accession to the international treaty, which has been in place for 30 years and has been signed by nearly 160 countries and the EU, is a top priority of Secretary Clinton and several other leaders in the international affairs and national security community. While the treaty’s prospects in this Senate remain uncertain, failure to ratify will leave the United States at an economic, strategic, and diplomatic disadvantage.

Both climate change and expanded resource extraction will have a significant impact on the economic development and national security of the region. A recent report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies highlights this trend: “With greater accessibility to the Arctic region and its abundant resources come both new opportunities for multilateral cooperation and the potential for regional competition and dispute, particularly conflicting territorial claims and managing maritime resources.” Now more than ever will the Arctic need a unified approach to addressing the threats the region is facing.

U.S. policy in the Arctic to date has been to remain outside Arctic governing structures, such as UNCLOS, or to only participate in informal, technical, and project-driven Arctic organizations. This approach will not work any longer. Any comprehensive U.S. policy aimed at protecting our interests in the Arctic, as well as the suffering ecosystem and native populations that depend on it for survival, requires swift ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention. In the immediate term, today’s Arctic Ministerial provides the unique opportunity to fully apprehend the current situation in the world’s last great frontier and take concrete steps to protect it.

Kiley Kroh is the Associate Director for Ocean Communications at American Progress.

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Kiley Kroh

Senior Editor, ThinkProgress