November 21, 2013

Preparing for the Arctic Decade

By Peter Gardett

The Arctic region is simultaneously one of the most high-profile and least understood areas of energy resource development work, diplomatic discussion and environmental concern.

The region’s very uniqueness has shown the gaps in existing geopolitical tools and approaches for understanding and managing its resources. While the Arctic Council, where the US will assume a two-year chair in 2015, has emerged as a useful forum for initial agreements on safety and environmental issues, its lack of progress on binding rules for the countries seeking to access enormous untapped natural resources in the region and the militaries that support those efforts has been the subject of criticism.

CNAS is an active observer of developments in the Arctic Council and across the Arctic region, and is dedicated to serving as a source for research and analysis on energy and environmental issues there as part of its Energy, Environment and Security research program.

The race for the Arctic is taking place against the background of often confusing developments and realignments in technology, politics, trade and infrastructure. Melting permafrost and sea ice cover are having global impacts, attracting and legitimizing the involvement of countries that are far from the Arctic Circle. The rapidly changing nature of the region’s environment and the lack of a common fact set about the Arctic poses a tremendous challenge for planners. It also complicates efforts to monitor resource development and military movements just as both have accelerated.

The Obama Administration issued a brief Arctic strategy in May 2013, and the State Department is conducting preparations to assume the chair of the Arctic Council, while the US Navy expects to include a greater degree of Arctic involvement in its coming planning exercises through 2025.

But for the US and its allies, as well as its partners in the private sector, it is clear that responsible Arctic development and stewardship requires prioritization based on the interplay of the Administration’s strategy with the evolving facts of the Arctic’s natural and political environment. It also requires clear and detailed communication about development and stewardship. 

With its chairing of the Arctic Council, the US has the opportunity to kick off an ‘Arctic decade’ of 2015 to 2025 with well-formed and prioritized plans and responsive organizational capacity. This will be necessary to end the proliferating confusion of recent years and the accelerating potential for environmental degradation.

(Photo credit: Alistair Scrutton/Reuters)

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