A New Arctic Agenda Starts With Congress and White House | Commentary

Posted September 27, 2013 at 4:00am

Our nation is making another attempt to put its fiscal house in order and it’s clear that we need to make wise investments in critical areas affecting the future of the United States. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a coalition of hundreds of international scientists, released its latest report on climate change science Thursday. What’s the connection? The panel’s completed analysis makes it clear that current climate trends are likely to result in dramatic changes in temperature and sea level rise, and this change is most evident in the Arctic — the planet’s air conditioner — where summer sea ice is shrinking at a record pace.

The Arctic is a region where significant economic, social and national security interests collide. To ensure that our national interests are protected, Congress must examine how a changing Arctic affects the United States, including weather, shipping traffic and search and rescue capabilities. It’s imperative that wise investments are made in this region now to understand the changes occurring and to safeguard our economic and national interests for years to come.

Why does this matter so much? The Arctic is the most rapidly changing region in the world today. While the first commercial crossing of the Arctic occurred just four years ago, 46 vessels made the summer journey last year and about 400 vessels are expected to sail these frigid waters in 2013 — shaving thousands of miles off the traditional crossing through the Suez Canal. Moreover, Russia has recently announced that its fabled Northern fleet will patrol Arctic shipping lanes in its territory, making its vast Arctic waters even more accessible.

As ice cover decreases in the Arctic, ocean warming will accelerate and we will likely feel the effects of an alarming increase in sea level, release of methane gas that will contribute to a warming climate, loss of habitat and livelihoods in the Arctic and extreme weather events in lower latitudes. At the same time, diminishing sea ice is resulting in a dramatic increase of economic activities, including destination and international shipping, fisheries and oil and natural gas exploration and development.

The Joint Ocean Commission Initiative’s recent report, “Charting the Course: Securing the Future of America’s Oceans,” urges the Obama administration and Congress to act immediately to ensure that America’s interests in the Arctic are preserved. This means preparing for harmful events as human activity increases, investing in research and improving regional governance systems.

First, we must prepare for incidents and disasters — both natural and man-made — that are more likely to occur as this fragile ecosystem opens up to expanded activities. The U.S. Coast Guard, our first line of defense in emergencies in the region, currently has only one functioning icebreaker, compared to more than two dozen under Russia’s control. These heavy-duty ships are critical to U.S. forces’ ability to access the Arctic year-round.

The agency must also maintain its aging fleets of aircraft and vessels so they can patrol the Arctic waters and effectively respond to disasters, including oil spills and search and rescue situations. We must also ensure adequate communications capability where traditional forms of communication are not reliable.

The administration and Congress should increase funding for federal agencies that offer critical services in the region, including the Coast Guard, the departments of the Interior and Energy, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Second, the United States needs to collect baseline information to increase our scientific understanding of this region in the context of climate change, sea level rise, changing ocean currents and global heat distribution. Cutting-edge research and monitoring by NOAA, the National Science Foundation, and the Office of Naval Research will equip us to better manage changes resulting from climate change and help guide economic development decisions.

To succeed, we need federal investments in basic and applied research as well as collaborations with industrial partners who will build, operate and rely on this data. We must also work closely with the other Arctic nations and industry to fund regional research knowing that these effects will impact more than one country.

Third, the Senate must accede to the Law of the Sea Convention so that our nation can secure its sovereign rights over our extended continental shelf areas, promote international commerce, and protect our national security interests. This would give us a seat at the table and a leadership role in international negotiations about how Arctic waters are demarcated and managed.

As Arctic waters fall under the jurisdiction of many countries, it is vital that the United States steps up to play a leadership role. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have a historic opportunity to strengthen coordination among the Arctic nations and to set a sustainable path forward when the U.S. chairs the Arctic Council in 2015. This must include a realistic assessment of likely increased human presence in the region to extract natural resources and a commitment to undertake these activities in a sustainable way.

Our country’s lagging investment in, and attention to, the Arctic requires immediate action and concrete commitments. With average temperatures in the region rising twice as fast as the rest of the globe, the Arctic is on the frontlines of global change. And rapidly-changing conditions at the top of the world will certainly affect all of us, regardless of where we live.

Sherri Goodman is an executive at CNA and former deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security under President Bill Clinton. Robert B. Gagosian is the president and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. Both are members of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.