Abdicating climate leadership harms America's security interests in Arctic

Abdicating climate leadership harms America's security interests in Arctic
© MAXIME POPOV/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. government’s refusal to grapple with the realities of climate change is putting our long-term national security interests at risk. This was clear when Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoUS, Sudan to exchange ambassadors for first time in decades Iran expert: Trump's foreign policy approach aimed at instigating 'unrest' Fox's Napolitano says obstruction 'easiest' impeachment offense for Democrats MORE recently distanced himself from our allies at an annual meeting of eight Arctic nations, known as the Arctic Council.

Pompeo’s remarks focused on the need to counter growing Chinese and Russian influence over the region as the Arctic becomes more navigable. But he failed to acknowledge that the very reason our adversaries are seeking advantage in the Arctic is the changing climate­ — with melting sea ice, rising temperatures and collapsing permafrost. For the first time ever, the Arctic Council — which is dominated by America’s allies — failed to produce a comminque, or a joint declaration of priorities, because the U.S. refused to sign even a watered-down version of the document.

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This is what a leadership vacuum looks like, and America’s adversaries are rapidly filling that void. 

Let’s be clear. The Arctic is “more navigable” because it is melting — and it is melting because of climate change. Climate change is creating new national security challenges for the United States, and no matter how tough our rhetoric, when our government ignores climate change, it diminishes American standing in the world and cedes the future to our biggest competitors.

China aspires to present its “Polar Silk Road” as a benign connector to its larger Belt and Road Initiative, which will facilitate the responsible development of global commerce. However, the reality is that China’s infrastructure projects around the world are anything but climate-conscious and environmentally friendly. In failing to assert America as a global leader in securing an environmentally sound future, Pompeo played right into Beijing’s hands.

While Pompeo was speaking at the Arctic Council meeting, Commander of U.S. Nothern Command General Terrence O’Shaughnessy was telling the Sea Air Space Conference that the Arctic is “our first line of defense,” acknowledging, as former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stated last year, that the U.S. needs to “up its game in the Arctic.” 

By failing to acknowledge that climate change is the reason that sea ice is retreating at record rates and permafrost is collapsing, the Trump administration is putting the U.S. at risk of underfunding the research necessary to protect American interests in a changed Arctic. 

According to Navy oceanographer Rear Admiral John Okon, “We’re a hundred years behind understanding the conditions of where we’ll have to defend the homeland and our partners.” Without detailed observations of changed conditions from sites across the Arctic, for example, Okon says we are “operating in the blind.” That’s a problem because the “Arctic is harsher than any other place on Earth, under, on, or above the sea." 

China, meanwhile, has acknowledged that climate change is the very reason it seeks further access to the Arctic, to exploit the shipping, energy and mineral opportunities of the region. Beijing has declared China a “Near-Arctic State,” and aims to use Russia’s Northern Sea Route to gain access to European markets, shortening shipping times by up to two weeks. The Northern Sea route would allow them to bypass the U.S-controlled Straits of Malacca and Hormuz, offering China a strategic advantage in global trade.

China also is deepening its Arctic presence through direct investment in several northern European Arctic states. China is asserting itself as a key partner in economic development and scientific exploration, increasing its scientific expeditions across the Arctic. This increased presence could be leveraged to shape policy in the region around China’s long-term strategic interests.

It’s beyond time that the U.S. realizes that our global interests and national security rely on defense and environmental pillars. We can improve our defense posture by acknowledging that our lack of action on climate change empowers our adversaries in key regions and undermines our own military readiness.

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This week, the United States has an opportunity to correct course. As countries around the world meet under the International Maritime Organization to figure out how to curb shipping emissions like black carbon, which is particularly damaging to the Arctic, the United States government should  —at minimum — not undermine the progress of allies working toward this goal. 

If the U.S. is to succeed in an era of great power competition, it must acknowledge that climate change is fundamental to our security, and that we have a responsibility to prepare for a different tomorrow.  

Sherri Goodman is a senior fellow at the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute and a former deputy undersecretary of Defense (Environmental Security).