Arctic envoy warns US behind in preparation as ice melts

Steaming in the Arctic Ocean.


By JULIA BERGMAN | The Day, New London, Conn. (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 16, 2015

As the U.S. prepares for its two-year turn at chairing the council of nations with Arctic territory, the State Department’s special representative for the Arctic, retired Coast Guard Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., admits that this country is behind in its preparations for a melting Arctic.

The U.S. is an Arctic nation because of Alaska, which was purchased from Russia in 1867. The eight-country Arctic Council was established to promote cooperation and coordination among them, indigenous groups and other Arctic inhabitants. The council’s primary focus is on environmental protection and sustainable development of the region.

The U.S. last chaired the council 15 years ago, and since then a lot has changed in the region. A rapidly warming Arctic climate has melted sea ice, making way for increased maritime traffic and greater human activity in previously inaccessible areas.

Some countries on the council have alreadybegun to react and plan. Norway has established cities along its Arctic coast, and Russia is modernizing airports and building railway lines in anticipation of increased human activity along The Northern Sea Route.

“I think we have the opportunity to get caught up, but it’s going to require commitment from the entire government, and the state of Alaska, and industry that wants to develop in the Arctic waters. It’s going to take a combination of all of the above,” Papp said by phone last week after a morning address at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., on the future of U.S. policy for the Arctic.

Besides the United States, the Russian Federation and Norway, the “Arctic States” on the council are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden. Each chairs the council for a two-year period, hosting meetings and diplomatic events. Six organizations representing Arctic Indigenous peoples serve as permanent participants.

“The United States is assuming the chair of the Arctic Council at a critical time,” Papp told members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee earlier this month.

In preparation for its tenure, which will begin in April, the United States has developed an agenda guided by a three-pronged focus: Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship; improving economic and living conditions for Arctic communities; and addressing the impact of climate change.

Increased maritime traffic in the Arctic calls for safety and security capabilities along new and developing maritime routes. Papp told the Senate committee that there’s been an increase in shipping through the Northern Sea Route above Russia, and through the Bering Strait.

“The responsibility for a nation that’s a maritime nation is to provide safety and security for the mariners that are going to be operating up there,” Papp told The Day, adding that one imperative is to “make sure that we have the resources to be able to respond to any accidents or disasters.”

The people of Alaska, most of whom live on the coast and rely on maritime transportation to get the supplies they need, are concerned about “their own personal survival,” Papp said.

“We have some villages falling into the sea as the permafrost thaws and there’s less permanent sea ice to protect the shoreline against winter storms,” he said, adding that “cities are flooded up there. We’re going to have to actually move people at a certain point,” which will be very expensive.

The U.S. agenda includes projects aimed at improving the economic and living conditions in Arctic communities. The melting ice provides opportunities for projects that would build up the land, but also projects that directly target and address some of the personal issues that Arctic communities are facing. Some of the ideas include renewable energy projects to increase energy and water security for the more remote communities, improving water and sanitation access, and advancing suicide intervention and awareness programs.

The agenda’s third focus is adapting to climate change.

“We’re not going to cure climate change within the Arctic Council, but we need to draw attention to the effects of climate change and also come up with ways to mitigate and adapt to it, to hopefully protect the environment of the Arctic, to demonstrate to the rest of the world that what goes on in the rest of the world affects the Arctic, and what’s happening the Arctic affects the rest of the world,” Papp said during the Brookings event.

Papp told The Day that our competition in the Arctic is “probably Russia, and to a certain extent Canada.”

The Northern Sea Route above Russia is opening faster than the Northwest Passage above the U.S. and Canada, which, Papp said, has led to “a tendency for both governments to say ‘We can wait on this because there’s not a large amount of traffic.’”

Russia is preparing for an increase in human activity and has begun investing in search- and-rescue facilities along the route, and has made military developments, which Papp said the U.S. is keeping an eye on. But, he added that “most of what they’re doing are things that the U.S. should be doing.”

The Northwest Passage was ordinarily frozen over completely, meaning it wasn’t used at all. And it is still a long way from becoming a viable sea route.

Currently, the U.S. does not have any permanent infrastructure in the Arctic. The most talked about piece of infrastructure is the need for a Coast Guard icebreaker. The operational U.S. polar icebreaking fleet consists of the heavy icebreaker USCGC Polar Star and the medium icebreaker USCGC Healy.

“That’s a lot of distance to cover with two ships,” Papp said, referring to the distance between the Arctic and Antarctica.

Some estimates have suggested the U.S. needs between four and eight icebreakers. “Let’s start building the first one,” Papp said. “At least we can all agree on one.”

Papp told the Brookings audience that the Russians have more than two dozen icebreakers, China and South Korea are each building one, and so are other countries. In his interview with The Day, Papp listed airports, hangars for aircraft, a deepwater port in Alaska and build out of telecommunications systems within the Arctic as other important infrastructure needs.

A ‘long list’ of projects

“There is a long list of federal projects that have been identified,” Papp explained, but they’re not in the federal budget. Papp said he was hopeful that the recent Executive Order on the Arctic signed by President Barack Obama “will lead to setting some priorities, which will hopefully lead to committing some resources as well.”

Underlying all of this is that the Senate has not ratified the Law of the Sea Convention, which regulates the resources of the sea and uses of the ocean. The U.S. is the only one of the eight Arctic nations that is not a party to the convention. Other countries with Arctic coastlines are charting the continental shelves to make claims under the treaty to increase their rights to the oil and gas reserves that lie beneath the Arctic waters. This puts us at a disadvantage because we have “no means, no standing,” Papp said, to perfect our claim — in other words, make it official.

Papp said he doubts that “with all the other things going on, that the Senate will take it up.”

As far as getting the general public to care about the Arctic, Papp said, “Climate is the one that holds the most promise.”

The State Department will lead a “rather large and robust public diplomacy effort,” he said, “to raise the awareness of the American people, and climate is probably the means to do that.”

©2015 The Day (New London, Conn.)

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Retired Coast Guard Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr.

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