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Arctic map
Arctic boundary as defined by the Arctic Research and Policy Act.
In the face of the reduction of Arctic ice that allowed 500 ships to sail the Northern Sea Route between Alaska and Russia in 2012—a 50 percent increase over the past decade that is expected to increase 10 times—the Pentagon has issued a 14-page white paper, Arctic Strategy. It's the Defense Department's approach to implementing the National Strategy for the Arctic Region released by the White House in May. But it's not nearly so focused on fossil-fuel extraction as that document's much-criticized emphasis. Carey Biron of Interpress News Service writes:
“This new strategy is hugely important in that it recognises the growing influence of the Arctic both to the United States and as an area of potential military operations,” Seth Myers, a research associate with the Arctic Institute, a Washington think tank, told IPS. “But the biggest question it raises is how any new capability will be paid for” in an era of intense budget-cutting in Washington.

The strategy depicts the Arctic as at an “inflection point,” both in terms of the reduction in ice cover and increase in human activity. [...]

“With Arctic sea routes starting to see more activities like tourism and commercial shipping, the risk of accidents increases. Migrating fish stocks will draw fishermen to new areas, challenging existing management plans,” [Defense Secretary Chuck] Hagel told a security conference in Canada on Friday, where he announced the new strategy.

“And while there will be more potential for tapping what may be as much as a quarter of the planet’s undiscovered oil and gas, a flood of interest in energy exploration has the potential to heighten tensions over other issues.”

In fact, the biggest question the white paper raises is just how cooperative vs. how much business-as-usual U.S. Arctic strategy will actually be.

Less than a decade ago, global warming deniers were still getting uncritical mainstream media coverage for their claims that Arctic ice was not melting at an historically unprecedented rate. Now scientists think it won't be very long before there will be a month or more in the summer when the Arctic is almost entirely ice free, with all that such a circumstance entails. The negative impacts on the Arctic are already being felt, not least by the communities of circumpolar Inuit peoples.

A warmer Arctic doesn't only mean less ice, it also means that the permafrost in the region is losing its permanence and releasing prodigious amounts of methane, as noted most recently in a study published Sunday in Nature Geoscience and, as reported in June by FishOutofWater, in NASA's study via the Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment. While methane doesn't last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, it has 21 times the near-term heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide.

The grim prospects of melting permafrost have not stopped the exploiters from revving up proposals for getting at the resources of the Arctic being made relatively more accessible by global warming. The most avid rubbing of palms comes, ironically, from the presence of fossil fuel resources whose extraction and burning elsewhere on the planet are a key cause of warming. Some 15 percent of remaining oil reserves and 30 percent of natural gas is estimated to be beneath the Arctic seabed. Gazprom, the state-backed Russian oil company has already started drilling and Shell has made some unsuccessful attempts.

There's more to read about "Arctic Strategy" below the fold.

The crew of a C-17 Globemaster III assist in deploying 120 soldiers for
Operation Arctic Response, an Army Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise.
Here's Biron:
“We are glad that the Defence Department’s Arctic Strategy acknowledges the diminishing of the ice caps in the Arctic. But the approach shouldn’t be seen as an opportunity for business, nor to create better conditions to do business exploiting its resources,” Gustavo Ampugnani, Arctic team leader for Greenpeace, an advocacy group that has been critical of oil speculation in the Arctic, told IPS.

“Melting sea ice in the Arctic is a symbol of the destruction of the planet, not an incentive to get there and take everything that until very recently wasn’t possible to take.” [...]

“From our perspective, the best way to keep the region peaceful, stable and free of conflict … is to prioritise the scientific work, in a cooperative spirit, to understand more how the Arctic ecosystem is key to regulating the global climate.”

Right on. But, unfortunately, just words against the prospect of big profits. And as Greenpeace protesters recently discovered in Russia, when those two conflict, the powers-that-be are quick to respond in ways that give objectors pause.

Key points from "Arctic Strategy":

This strategy identifies the Department’s desired end-state for the Arctic: a secure and stable region where U.S. national interests are safeguarded, the U.S. homeland is protected, and nations work cooperatively to address challenges. It also articulates two main supporting objectives: Ensure security, support safety, and promote defense cooperation, and prepare to respond to a wide range of challenges and contingencies—operating in conjunction with other nations when possible, and independently if necessary—in order to maintain stability in the region. Finally, it identifies the ways and means the Department intends to use to achieve these objectives as it implements the National  Strategy for the Arctic Region. [...] The Department will accomplish its objectives through the following ways:

• Exercise sovereignty and protect the homeland;
• Engage public and private sector partners to improve domain awareness in the Arctic;
• Preserve freedom of the seas in the Arctic;
• Evolve Arctic infrastructure and capabilities consistent with changing conditions;
• Support existing agreements with allies and partners while pursuing new ones to build
confidence with key regional partners;
• Provide support to civil authorities, as directed;
• Partner with other departments and agencies and nations to support human and
environmental safety; and
• Support the development of the Arctic Council and other international institutions that
promote regional cooperation and the rule of law.

Here's how the Pentagon views that third item:
Preserve freedom of the seas in the Arctic. The United States has a national interest in preserving all of the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea and airspace recognized under international law. The Department will preserve the global mobility of United States military and civilian vessels and aircraft throughout the Arctic, including through the exercise of the Freedom of Navigation program to challenge excessive maritime claims asserted by other Arctic States when necessary. The Department will continue to support U.S. accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (hereafter referred to as the Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC)) because it codifies the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea and airspace the Department seeks to preserve; provides a means for the peaceful resolution of disputes; and ensures international recognition of resources rights on the extended continental shelf.
The United States certainly ought to sign the Law of the Sea Convention as it might spur the nation more in the direction that Greenpeace's Ampugnani urges. But nearly 20 years after the treaty came into force in 1994, the U.S. still hasn't signed it. In July 2012, 34 Republican senators informed the Senate leadership that they opposed the treaty, which requires 67 affirmative votes. Two of them, Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, wrote a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid stating that they did not see the treaty as being in the "national interest" despite the fact that the United States was instrumental in shaping the treaty when the draft was first presented to potential signatories in 1982.

It's narrowly defined attitudes like that which make getting to a truly far-sighted Arctic strategy so very, very difficult.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Tue Nov 26, 2013 at 12:41 PM PST.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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