Commentary: Climate change renders Arctic both accessible and vulnerable

With senior Arctic officials meeting in Portland this week, it’s worth asking: Why is the U.S. hosting a major Arctic gathering in Maine, far from the American Arctic?

Nothing that happens in the Arctic stays in the Arctic. Because of the changing climate, 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, from Alaska to Maine and beyond.

Last year, Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the Arctic, and he delivered remarks at 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 toward action is understanding, the White House convened the first Arctic Science Ministerial on Sept. 28. The meeting underscored the role of science in creating a common knowledge base of changes that are radically transforming the Arctic, deepening international relationships and stressed the vital importance of science diplomacy to meeting the Arctic’s unavoidable challenges.

In recent years, concerns about the Arctic have included climate change and a changing Russia. Its aggressive actions in its near-abroad, notably in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, have created apprehension 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), yet its other actions are similar to those of the other Arctic coastal states: development of oil and gas, mining and fisheries in its extended continental shelf and its exclusive economic zone; and promoting commercial shipping through the Northern Sea Route, made more accessible by the diminishing polar ice cap.

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 took 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 meeting of senior Arctic officials in Portland includes representatives from all member states of the Arctic Council – the United States (the current chair), Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and 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 in Maine will advance understanding of Arctic challenges, strengthen Arctic observation and data sharing, build regional resilience to changing conditions and strengthen capabilities in telecommunications and clean energy.

Most importantly for the New England region, this Arctic meeting connects the Arctic to a region and people that are already becoming Arctic-smart, in terms of technology for clean energy in remote locations, educational resources that are abundant and a seafaring and fishing culture.

Both the White House Arctic Science Ministerial last week and the meeting of senior Arctic officials in Maine 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.