US position on the poles still carries weight
One of the largest icebergs ever recorded, estimated to be about the size of Delaware, has broken off from an ice shelf in Antarctica. The event, including dramatic pictures, provides a magnet for media.
Project MIDAS, based in Britain, monitors such developments. Scientists there testify that the iceberg is not a direct result of human action, though the wider context includes rising temperatures.
The good news is that the United States now is an effective leader in addressing polar and other climate challenges, a direct legacy of Secretary of State John Kerry during the Obama administration. More surprising, current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also is notably active, despite the formal U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accords.
In May, Tillerson participated with other leaders representing Arctic nations in a conference in Fairbanks, Alaska. The Arctic Council, created in 1996, comprises Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S.
Following President Donald Trump’s announcement withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris agreement, Tillerson continues to support climate management cooperation, possibly including a new agreement. More than climate is involved. Melting polar ice is revealing enormous mineral deposits previously unavailable. That is changing political dynamics both within and between nations. China is now a major investor.
Russia, spearheaded by President Vladimir Putin, is providing international leadership. In September 2013, the Third International Arctic Forum was held in the far northern town of Salekhard. The meeting coincided with release of a report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Putin emphasized Arctic environment protection combined with orderly investment. A fourth such meeting was held in March this year.
In 2010, the Russian Geographical Society hosted two Arctic conferences, followed by others. Investors along with scholars and government representatives are involved.
Historically Britain has been an Arctic leader, but now Russia is increasingly assertive there, with a vital stake. Others along with China and Russia seek the enormous natural resources involved.
Conflicts over territorial jurisdiction multiply as more northern territory is freed from the ice and snow. Disputes have aligned Russia against Canada and Denmark regarding control of the Lomonosov Ridge, most of which is in international waters.
Other nations involved in such disagreements include Finland, Iceland, Sweden and the United States. Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a nation can claim resources beyond a 200-mile limit if a direct continuous continental shelf can be established.
Regarding leadership, the U.S. government was disengaged. When John Kerry became secretary of state, that changed dramatically. Tillerson may be pursuing a similar path.
Longer-term history is also encouraging regarding Antarctic and Arctic cooperation. International Polar Years were held in 1882-83, 1932-33 and 2007-09.
The first two inspired the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58, during the Cold War. American leadership was instrumental in launching and completing this global, intergovernmental research and policy enterprise. Discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belts was one of numerous IGY scientific achievements.
Demilitarization of Antarctica, proposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was another beneficial byproduct. That facilitated international cooperation among scientists that went on despite the intensity of the Cold War, and continues. Undeniably, Eisenhower’s initiative laid the foundation for much more publicized Soviet-U.S. strategic arms agreements, including the partial test ban treaty of 1963 and the SALT treaties of 1972.
International organizations play a sustained role in technical engagement as well as leadership. Environmental challenges today are global, and so is U.S. influence.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”