Arctic Caucus Formed on Navigation, Commercial Issues Linked to Melting Sea Ice

Metling Glacier Photo Credit Bernard Francou/San Andres University via Bloomberg

Rep. Don Young (Alaska), a senior Republican on the House Natural Resources and House Transportation and Infrastructure committees, has joined with Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) in launching an Arctic Working Group to advise Congress on commercial, navigation and U.S. security issues and other issues stemming from rapidly melting Arctic sea ice.

The Congressional Arctic Working Group will get input from the oil, gas and mining industry; environmental groups; national security and navigation interests; and native communities. Young is chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Alaska Native and Indian Affairs and the former chairman of both the Natural Resources and Transportation committees.

He and Larsen, who is the top Democrat on the House Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation, announced the new group in an Aug. 1 op-ed in the Washington Post that highlighted the prospect of increased navigation in a vast area once considered impassable to commercial vessels.

Four years ago, continued sea ice decline allowed two German ships to follow a Russian icebreaker to complete the first commercial shipment across the Arctic, the two House members wrote, and by last year, 71 ships had made the journey.

The National Climate Assessment released in May highlighted what it said is a “sharp” and unprecedented decline in summer Arctic ice. Record lows in Arctic sea ice volume were recorded in 2012, which the report said was linked to rising global temperatures and is “consistent with human-induced climate change.”

Kerry to Lead Council

The U.S. is being urged to elevate climate issues in the Arctic Council—which represents the U.S., Canada, Russia and other nations bordering the Arctic—when Secretary of State John Kerry assumes a two-year chairmanship in 2015.

The chairmanship rotates every two years among member nations, and Kerry has been urged to select climate change as the key theme for his tenure.

In July, Kerry named retired Adm. Robert Papp Jr., who recently retired as a commandant after a 39-year career in the U.S. Coast Guard, as the State Department's first special representative to the region. During his time as commandant of the Coast Guard, Papp worked with Congress to secure funding to complete five of eight national security vessels and to refurbish the Polar Star heavy icebreaker, one of only two heavy icebreakers owned by the U.S.

Young and Larsen hailed Papp's appointment as a “good step forward” but noted that other nations on the council are represented by ambassadors. The U.S. needs “a congressionally approved ambassador” to the council, they wrote in their op-ed, an elevated position “that would rightfully focus greater attention on what is happening in the region,” he said.

DOD Warns of Impacts

In a related development, a former Defense Department official told the Senate Budget Committee July 29 that flooding and other severe weather linked to climate change will further strain the National Guard and Reserves, even as an increasingly lean U.S. military expects them to shoulder a greater share of the burden of future armed conflicts.

Sherri Goodman, a former deputy undersecretary of defense from 1993 to 2001, told the panel that multiple storms hitting the U.S. at the same time could impact troop readiness, as those personnel “are less available to respond to worldwide crises.”

“The frequency, severity, and probability that these events could happen simultaneously will also likely increase demand for active duty forces” to support civil authorities, as was done during Hurricane Katrina, according to Goodman, now executive director of the CNA Military Advisory Board.


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