from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Canary in the Coal Mine: The Arctic as a National Imperative

March 24, 2017

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The following is a guest post by Theresa Lou, research associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program.

The Arctic is changing rapidly. It is warming at twice the rate as the rest of the planet, causing sea ice to melt and water levels to rise. Once considered the world’s least accessible ocean, the Arctic Ocean now contains additional sea routes for shipping and commercial activity. Countries such as China and Russia—eager for emerging economic opportunities—are investing new resources in the region as the United States lags behind.  Meanwhile, rising sea levels and erratic weather patterns are endangering coastal communities in all Arctic nations.

A timely new CFR Independent Task Force report, Arctic Imperatives: Reinforcing U.S. Strategy on America’s Fourth Coast, assesses these risks and finds that the United States should strengthen its strategic commitment to the Arctic to safeguard U.S. national security, advance economic interests, and preserve the environment. Here are four main takeaways from the report:

1. The United States is ceding economic opportunities to China, Russia, and other Arctic nations.

The rapidly retreating sea ice provides countries with new routes for commercial shipping and tourism. Simultaneously, the melting ice and permafrost creates unprecedented opportunities to tap the Arctic’s wealth of natural resources. Moscow and Beijing are seizing these opportunities, while Washington stands still. Russia possesses forty icebreakers to conduct a range of maritime missions. Beijing is now building its third. Meanwhile, the United States has just two functional ice-breaking vessels to serve both the Arctic and Antarctic. As both China and Russia continue to invest in infrastructure in the Arctic, the report recommends that the United States follows suit.

2. The United States should ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

While recognizing the political hurdles in Washington, the bipartisan Task Force reiterates the call for the United States to join nearly 170 other nations and the European Union in ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Continued opposition to the convention on (specious) grounds of “defending U.S. sovereignty” is a costly mistake. By not acceding to UNCLOS, the United States cannot legally exploit the vast oil and gas resources on the U.S. extended continental shelf, an area twice the size of California. Nor can it mine the minerals in the Arctic seabed, or lay and service submarine telecommunication cables. As overlapping claims to Arctic continental shelves emerge, Russia and other Arctic nations can have their claims substantiated by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. But because the United States is not party to UNCLOS, it cannot defend its interests at the commission.

There is also a compelling security rationale for ratification. As the principal force behind UNCLOS negotiations, the United States ensured the treaty endorses the principle of freedom of navigation that the nation has defended since its founding. The convention outlines clear rights, duties, and jurisdictions of maritime states, and would provide treaty-based legal rights supporting U.S. freedom of movement and activities. Of most immediate relevance to the Trump administration, becoming party to UNCLOS would strengthen the U.S. hand in settling disputes in the South and East China Seas. The United States has called for China to respect global maritime norms and to comply with an international tribunal’s ruling against Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, but as long as it remains an outsider, its message rings hollow.

3. U.S. military capabilities in the Arctic trail those of both Russia and China, exposing the nation to security risks.

Russia’s increasing militarization of the Arctic should be of grave concern to U.S. policymakers. Nearly three decades after the (then) USSR decommissioned the world’s first nuclear icebreaker, the Lenin, Moscow is once again racing to firm up its military presence in the High North by building three more nuclear icebreakers and military and radar bases. Beijing has also expanded its military operations in the region, even sailing five navy ships within twelve nautical miles of Alaska’s coast in September 2015. To better gauge Russian intentions in the Arctic and to decrease the risks of misunderstanding, the report recommends that the United States pursue confidence-building measures through newly formed Arctic Coast Guard Forum, as well as military-to-military conversations.

4. Accelerating climate change in the Arctic is already harming American lives requires an immediate response.

Unlike in Vegas, what happens in the Arctic does not stay there. As the polar region warms, rising sea levels will increasingly jeopardize the livelihoods of millions globally and exacerbate economic and security risks that the United States already faces.

Although most Americans do not yet believe that climate change will hurt them personally, residents of Alaska are already feeling its brunt. Structures built on permafrost are sagging, and coastlines are eroding. Indigenous Inuit and other native communities, many of whom already lack safe drinking water and adequate plumbing, find their traditional lifestyles disrupted, and some towns will need to relocate.

But the effects of global warming are also being felt further afield. Frequent floods now plague Norfolk, Virginia, home to the world’s largest naval base. The state of Florida, and its billions of dollars’ worth of coastal property (including President Donald Trump’s beloved Mar-a-Lago club), is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise. In many developing countries, like Bangladesh, rising waters will create an entire new category of climate change refugees. Anticipating such a crisis, the Task Force recommends that the United States and other Arctic nations convene an international panel of scientists and policymakers to forge better global understanding of Arctic warming thresholds.

The looming question, of course, is whether this report’s grave findings and urgent recommendations will find a receptive audience in Washington—or instead, fall on deaf ears. To date, Trump has indicated little interest in the Arctic, and his recent budget proposal bodes ill. It would reduce spending on the Coast Guard by a whopping $1.3 billion, crippling the service’s ability to secure U.S. maritime borders, much less correct the current shortfall in icebreakers and cutters. The budget similarly calls for draconian cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, the science and research offices in the Department of Energy, and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration—steps that would undercut U.S. leadership in understanding and combating climate change and diminish the U.S. ability to advance sovereign interests in the region.

The report of the Arctic task force—co-chaired by former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman and former Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral Thad Allen—makes one thing unmistakably clear:  Unless the United States elevates the importance of the Arctic in its foreign policy and devote assets to the region, it will miss out on economic opportunities, harm the planet, and weaken U.S. strategic standing in this new frontier.