‘The damn thing melted’: Climate change and US interests in the Arctic

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in April, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer announced that a rewrite of the Navy’s Arctic strategy was underway.  Asked by a reporter after the hearing what prompted the new strategy just four years after the Navy issued its U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap 2014-2030, Spencer stated “the damn thing melted.” 

Secretary Spencer was right. The Arctic is melting. Just this month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued its annual Arctic report card for 2018. NOAA’s headline “Effects of persistent Arctic warming continue to mount” was an understatement. Among the agency’s findings, air temperatures in the Arctic are warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world and sea ice “remained younger, thinner, and covered less area than in the past.” The implications of these changes for U.S. national interests cannot be ignored. Consider recent developments.

In late August, a container ship operated by the global shipping behemoth Maersk, left Vladivostok bound for St. Petersburg though the Northern Sea Route. While that was a first such transit for a commercial container ship, it surely won’t be the last. Meanwhile, the operating environment in the Arctic, even for experienced shipping firms, is incredibly difficult: the weather is poor; the conditions unpredictable; and much work remains in the way of charting the sea floor and identifying maritime hazards. Nevertheless, given warming trends, opportunities for transit and exploitation of natural resources in the Arctic will continue to grow. 

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Those potential opportunities are already drawing a crowd as allies and adversaries alike position themselves to benefit from the melting ice. Russia’s build up in the high north is ongoing. As to China, a recent report by CNA’s Mark Rosen and Cara Thuringer estimates that Chinese firms have already invested about $90 billion dollars in Arctic and Arctic-related infrastructure. These developments increase the risk of international disputes or an accident that could take generations to recover from.

In October, the U.S. joined eight other countries, including Russia and China, and the European Union in signing the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean. The agreement precludes commercial fishing in the area until there is sufficient scientific data to determine how such activities should be managed. It also commits signatories to establishing a Joint Program of Scientific Research and Monitoring to inform when and how commercial fishing activity ought to be permitted. Forging international consensus to preclude commercial activity — prior to such activity even being initiated in any significant way — was an historic achievement. While agreements like this are important for protecting the Arctic ecosystem, they are also critical to reducing the risk of future conflict. 

Mitigating the worst impacts of climate change ultimately depends on significant reductions in global carbon emissions. 

The United States should rejoin the international community and recommit to aggressive cuts in CO2. 

However, we cannot ignore the implications of warming that is already happening. Forging consensus with the international community is essential to dealing with these implications, avoiding future conflicts, and keeping the Arctic a cooperative part of the planet.

Lee Gunn is a retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral; he blogs at SecuringaSustainablePlanet.org

Joe Bryan is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy.