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Arctic envoy: Climate change key focus for US

Special U.S. representative to the Arctic, Adm. Robert Papp Jr., said on Tuesday that climate change will be a main priority for the U.S. when it takes over chairmanship of the Arctic Council next year.

During one of his first speeches as the nation's first Arctic envoy, Papp said the U.S. will be "more active and more forward leaning" when it comes to addressing the impacts of climate change in the region.

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"It is imperative to address the effects of climate change before it's too late," Papp said during an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Papp said the U.S. would pursue conservation in the Arctic with the same drive as John F. Kennedy's call to send a man to the moon after the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik.

“Rather than a national imperative, what we have is a moral imperative. We have an obligation to protect this area of our earth for future progress, for the people that live there,” he added.

If it weren't for the "warming of the Arctic," Papp said, no one would be up there exploring, shipping cargo or drilling for oil and gas, which is why the council will need to set more "actionable items and goals."

The U.S. is slated to take over chairmanship of the Arctic Council from Canada next year. Papp on Tuesday laid out broad details of the program that Secretary of State John Kerry will oversee as chairman of the council. 

Specifics will be released next month, Papp said, but right now the proposed initiatives and projects the U.S. is considering fall under three areas.

Those include ocean governance, climate change mitigation and adaptation and improvement of the economic and living conditions of Arctic residents.

When talking to reporters, Papp said he expects the U.S. will be able to work on crafting "likeminded" measures that will "develop resilience and adaptation for people that live within the Arctic" with the other seven nations on the council.

"I'm not a scientist, I'm a sailor," Papp told reporters, hitting on a common refrain used by climate skeptics. "But I've dealt with the practical consequences of what we see happening up there. I know what I see. I've seen the drastic changes."

"And I know that we ought to be doing everything we can because at certain point you don't want to look back 10 years or so and say, 'gee I wish I'd done that,'" he added.

Papp cited the decrease in glaciers and land-based ice sheets, as well as the thawing permafrost.

"Unlike Las Vegas, what happens in the Arctic does not just stay in the Arctic. Likewise, what happens in the rest of the world effects the Arctic," he said. "Black carbon emissions, methane emissions we need to work towards reducing because we need to do everything we can."

Papp also discussed the increasing oil-and-gas exploration in the Arctic, an area in which he says the U.S. has a lot of work to do.

While he praised the Interior Department for a "sound" proposal on safety standards for oil and gas drilling in the region, Papp said the U.S. "need[s] to get our act in order first."

Papp said he has visited with companies like Shell and ExxonMobil, which have started or hope to begin operations in the Arctic.

He said the oil companies have learned from previous mishaps in the harsh environment, but that progress is being made. From there, Papp says, the U.S. will be able to share information with other countries that are drilling.

"[We] will make sure that we have similar practices in the Arctic," Papp said of drilling safety standards.

He said he's not sure that will take the form of a concrete multilateral agreement or if it will be "a voluntary adaptation of standards of some sort" adopted by countries.