'The Arctic is the Lynchpin': Vying for Control of the Icy North

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'The Arctic is the Lynchpin': Vying for Control of the Icy North

U.S. will take helm of Arctic Council this week, while Russia ramps up construction of Arctic military base

This visualization shows the extent of Arctic sea ice on Aug. 26, 2012, the day the sea ice dipped to its smallest extent ever recorded in more than three decades of satellite measurements, according to scientists from NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center. (Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/flickr/cc)

The U.S. will assume leadership of the international Arctic Council this week, as Russia and Canada flex their military muscles in the fossil fuel-rich polar region.

For environmentalists, by opening U.S. Arctic waters to oil drilling leases, the Obama Administration hasn't instilled confidence in its stewardship of the complex and swiftly changing ecosystem. Still, when U.S. presents its agenda for its two-year chairmanship of the Council this week, some are hopeful that the U.S. term will focus on mitigating, researching, and preventing climate change as opposed to plundering the region's natural resources.

"The United States is assuming the chairmanship of the Arctic Council at a critical time," reads a Clean Air Task Force report, "The Last Climate Frontier" (pdf), issued Monday. "For climate change, the Arctic is the lynchpin—the future of the Arctic will determine the future of all coastal communities, from Miami to Norfolk to Shanghai. It is critical that the U.S. finds a way to leverage its Chairmanship to lead the Council into action."

The Arctic Council consists of representatives from eight countries—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States—plus permanent participants representing indigenous peoples.

In speeches and statements, U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic Admiral Robert Papp Jr. has indicated that climate change will be a theme of the U.S.'s tenure at the helm, Environment & Energy Publishing reported Monday:

What is clear is that the U.S. chairmanship is likely to be a major shift from the approach led by the Canadian chairmanship over the past two years, which emphasized economic development in the north.

..."Why do we need to act now? We need to act now because I've seen the drastic changes that have occurred in the Arctic," Papp said in a speech last month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, describing how he visited the Bering Strait 30 years apart and was startled by the recent lack of ice. "We must take care that economic activity in the Arctic is sustainable and does not exacerbate the effects of climate change and environmental degradation."

In recent remarks, Papp has outlined an extensive list of potential U.S. actions on climate change at the Council, including efforts to control black carbon—a major contributor to global warming, produced by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels—and to reduce methane emissions, ban Arctic fishing, and build resilience in local communities.

It's unclear how achievable any of these goals will be.

"The problem is, it's really hard to provide really pragmatic policy deliverables with such an overarching theme," Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies," told Environment & Energy. "Climate change and the policies around climate change have different meanings to each of the eight Arctic members."

Climate activists do agree on one measurable step the U.S. government could take to protect the Arctic: Stop Shell and other oil giants from drilling there.

Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on the conundrum U.S. officials face in designing sanctions against Russia that won't harm Western oil companies like Texas-based Exxon Mobil, which are engaged in oil-and-gas exploration with their Russian counterparts in parts of the Russian Arctic.

Meanwhile, Russia "is engaging in large-scale militarization of the Arctic, a vast area coveted by itself and its four neighbors: Canada, the United States, Norway and Denmark," the Guardian reported Tuesday. "Such moves may bring back the atmosphere of the cold war, when the region was the focus of US and NATO attention, as they were convinced that it would be a launchpad for nuclear strikes."

Canada, which laid claim to the North Pole last year, has recently tested unmanned ground vehicles and drones near its facility in Nunavut, the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world.

The Russian news agency RIA Novosti said Tuesday that Russia will complete deployment of military units on its territory along the Arctic circle by the end of 2014.ITAR-TASS, another state news agency, reported that Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said "this is fundamental, large-scale work."

According to RIA Novosti:

Over the past few years, Russia has been pressing ahead with efforts aimed at the development of its Arctic territories, including hydrocarbon production and development of the Northern Sea Route, which is gaining importance as an alternative to traditional routes from Europe to Asia.

A number of political, economic and military measures have been taken to protect Russia’s interests in the Arctic amid NATO’s increased focus on the region.

In April, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia would build a unified network of military facilities on its Arctic territories to host troops, advanced warships and aircraft as part of a plan to boost protection of the country’s interests and borders in the region.

Russian officials are especially wary of NATO interests in the area. "We firmly believe that there are no problems in the Arctic which demand NATO participation," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a public lecture on Monday. Despite Russia's own military build-up, Lavrov insisted: "The Arctic is a territory of dialogue. We use this slogan for regular forums in Russia, and the work of the Arctic Council, to a large extent, is drawn up in this way."

As for the environmental impact of the country's own military build-up, the Russian defense ministry earlier in October announced plans to build “a regional environmental center...to prevent pollution in areas where Russian forces are deployed.”

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