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OPINION: United States must enter Arctic policy conversation in earnest

January 25th, 2013 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

This week, the political figures and scientists most involved in the ever-changing Arctic gathered in Norway to consider the future of this profoundly complicated part of the world.

After a lot of listening to Americans talk about the Arctic, I always find it interesting to listen to what people from other countries are saying. U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo summarized the Alaska, and perhaps American view on Arctic issues this way in the Nome Nugget in a 2012 meeting:

"Everywhere I go, I hear the same thing: 'We don't know what's going on, we are afraid of the environment getting spoiled, and by the way, will there be economic development? Well, we want to be part of that.' "

From reading speeches, interviews and press coverage of the event, what I hear more than anything is frustration with the pace of hard-and-fast policy compared with the pace of change in the environment and the subsequent change in development and use of the more-and-more-ice-free Arctic.

"We cannot limit ourselves to listening and exchanging views," said European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Maria Damanaki. "I think it is time for us to take action. The Arctic is heating up, literally and figuratively. It is urgent that we agree on an appropriate course of action together."

Few would argue with Damanaki. The Arctic is something of the Wild West of our era, a more-or-less lawless land where each nation is making it up as they go. Some are instituting safety measures of various sorts, developing response programs, building ports and parking icebreakers in them. Others are contemplating oil and gas development, and others, especially Asian nations where the demand is so high, are diving into the burgeoning world of shipping hydrocarbons of various varieties via the Arctic.

What is absent, by-and-large, is any sort of international agreement regarding most of this activity. Should vessels be required to check in with each country they sail by? So far, they are not, as anyone along the Arctic coast will tell you.

But consider the challenge we are dealing with. The Arctic nations, as well as those who are eagerly stepping in to take advantage of this new thoroughfare, have very different ways of doing business. A look at environmental policies of each of these nations will tell a story of widely divergent opinions about how much protection is enough and how much is overstepping.

Somehow, to create a consistent policy of dealing with the future of global melding, those differences must be overcome. And from the outside, it looks as though Americans are among the biggest offenders in the category of standing in the way of that happening. While the U.S. has drug its feet in recognizing its role in the Arctic until only the past couple of years, it has also held up policy from moving forward, arguing points from a self-interest standpoint. The Law of the Sea treaty is a perfect example. While the U.S. helped create the treaty, which has been signed and ratified by 162 countries, and established international laws governing maritime rights of countries, the U.S. did not ratify the treaty last year, after it failed to find the two-thirds votes it needed in the Senate.

The treaty was criticized as subjecting the United States to regulation by an international body, and requiring American businesses to pay royalties for resource exploitation, according to the Washington Times last year. There was also grumbling about environmental regulations.

I'm sure policy creators have an incredible struggle on their hands trying to meld the interests of more than a hundred nations. Surely, everyone isn't going to get what they want. But the reality of the situation is presenting itself in the Arctic right now. Either the United States starts working on cooperation and cohesion with other Arctic nations, or it stands to stall absolutely critical policy that will protect not only our ocean environments but our economic interests as well.

What happens if we don't play ball? Exactly what is happening now. Ships are coming and going past our shores, past whaling parties and critical habitat areas, without so much as a tip of their hat to the nation they are passing. We don't know them, and most alarmingly, they don't know us, or benefit from our wealth of knowledge about the oceans in which they are traveling. In this day and age, that's unacceptable.

Let's hope the political leaders gathered in Norway right now are able to make headway on these issues and move forward with real hard-and-fast policy decisions about vessel monitoring, standards, spill response, protections and communication. Let's hope the U.S. government recognizes sooner rather than later that participating in such a conversation, with the knowledge that as a member of a burgeoning globally connected group of Arctic nations, it might not get everything it wants. And let's hope this movement doesn't follow the standard trend of so many other policy issues in the United States and beyond and only come to pass after a disaster and as the by-product of hindsight.


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