World’s Attention Has Turned to the Arctic

by Lester L. Lyles, Sherri Goodman, and Robert E. Hunter

Nothing that happens in the Arctic stays in the Arctic. Because of global warming, this is not a play on words but a truism. Climate change can no longer be denied but must be dealt with. It is opening up an entire region, once silent and perpetually frozen, to commerce, transport, mining, and all the other benefits and ills of modern life. Last month, the Crystal Serenity, a giant cruise ship used to plying warm seas, sailed across the top of the world, just one example of a radical transformation bringing the Arctic to the center of the global future.

The Arctic can no longer play second fiddle to other parts of the globe. It’s one of the world’s last major frontiers, and its value to every nation cannot be overstated. That includes the United States, a major Arctic nation with vital interests at stake.

Last year, President Barack Obama chaired the historic GLACIER summit of 18 nations in Anchorage, Alaska, signaling the region’s critical importance to us and to all other nations that took part. Now recognizing that the first step towards action is understanding, the White House will convene the first Arctic Science Ministerial on September 28th. It will emphasize the importance of science in creating a common knowledge base of changes that are radically transforming the Arctic, jumpstart international relationships, and underscore the vital importance of science diplomacy to meeting the Arctic’s unavoidable challenges.

In recent years, concerns about the Arctic have centered on Russia. Its aggressive actions in its near-abroad, notably in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, have created apprehensions in the United States and other Arctic nations about its intentions in the Far North. Russia has expanded its military presence along its vast Arctic borders (though still not to Cold War levels); claimed preeminence in oil and gas, mining, and fisheries in large areas of the Arctic as its territorial right; and planned to exploit shipping through the Northern Sea Route, made more accessible by the diminishing polar ice cap.

Yet Russia is also beginning to join other Arctic nations in recognizing that climate change will degrade its environment, that the challenge can only be met in common, and that it has to cooperate as well as compete with other nations with Arctic interests. Thus it is taking part in the White House ministerial with other nations’ science ministers. And despite Russia’s behavior elsewhere, we believe it is in the U.S. interest to have Moscow engaged.

The Arctic Science Ministerial is bringing together science ministers and other senior officials from all member states of the Arctic Council: the United States (the current chair), Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and many non-Arctic nations such as Japan and South Korea. Together, they will build upon current successful collaboration on Arctic science, ocean and environmental monitoring, climate change, energy, telecommunications, data sharing, and research.

The gathering will advance understanding of Arctic science challenges, strengthen Arctic observation and data sharing, build regional resilience to changing conditions, and promote education for Alaskan Natives and indigenous communities in the other Arctic nations.

The U.S. Arctic Executive Steering Committee, under the auspices of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is organizing and leading this science ministerial, with specific science and research goals. This is a true “whole of government” effort, involving every agency actively involved in the U.S. Arctic Strategy, including the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, National Air and Space Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and National Science Foundation.

The meeting can be the model for a new type of global engagement, based on three key principles:

  1. Advancing scientific understanding is strategically important and can have no boundaries
  2. Science diplomacy can support key U.S. diplomatic and security objectives by building trust and developing cooperation
  3. Cooperation in key regions needs to involve partners outside the region: many non-Arctic nations, such as Japan and even China, can make important contributions to Arctic science

As it demonstrates these key principles and gains international commitment to them, the White House Arctic Science Ministerial can become a pivotal point in the history of humankind’s necessary efforts to deal with climate change, the single greatest challenge of our time.

Sherri Goodman is a former deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security, founder of the Center for Naval Analyses Military Advisory Board and public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. Lester Lyles retired as a four-star general after 35 years of service and various commands in the U.S. Air Force. He now serves on several corporate and advisory boards. Robert Hunter is a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and an official for Europe and the Middle East at the National Security Council in the White House. All three  are members of an advisory board reporting to the U.S. Department of State.  The views expressed here are their own and are not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of State or U.S. government.The authors of this article are members of an advisory board reporting to the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed are their own, and are not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of State or U.S. government.

Reprinted, with permission, from Alaska Dispatch News. Photo by Mario Hoppmann via Flickr (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center).

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.


One Comment

  1. Well, now that the wildlife — especially the bears — are safely headed for extinction, I’m sure these nations can come to some agreement on what’s best in terms of exploiting the Arctic’s vast petroleum resources.

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