Asia ahead on preparing for polar climate change, says U.S. Arctic rep

Cargo ships entering Singapore in 2014. What can other countries learn from Singapore's engagement with the Arctic? (iStock)
Cargo ships entering Singapore in 2014. What can other countries learn from Singapore’s engagement with the Arctic? (iStock)
Asia has lessons to teach other countries when it comes to preparing for polar climate change, says the U.S. special representative to the Arctic.

While western nations are quick to engage with hot button issues like war in Afghanistan, terrorism and nuclear proliferation, they’ve been slow to plan and adapt to the changing global dynamics of climate change when compared to countries like China and Singapore, said retired Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp, the United States top Arctic official since 2014.

“It’s very difficult within our western countries to look beyond the current situation or the 12-month budget cycle or the current  issue we’re currently confronted with,” Papp said to an audience at the Centre interuniversitaire de recherche sur les relations internationales du Canada et du Québec at the École nationale d’administration publique (National School of Public Administration) in Montreal, Canada on Friday.

“The Asians on the other hand, they have a 100-year plan. They’re looking at what do we need to be doing now in order to be successful 100 years from now.  What I’m suggesting is that western countries that are part of the Arctic Council, need to be thinking that way as well.”

Ports of the future

Shanghai, Singapore, Shenzhen and Hong Kong are among the busiest container ports in the world

U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic, Robert Papp, speaking at the École nationale d’administration publique in Montreal, Canada on June 12, 2015. (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)
U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic, Robert Papp, speaking at the École nationale d’administration publique in Montreal, Canada on June 12, 2015. (Eilís Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)

But with diminishing sea ice in the Arctic, the possibility of a trans-polar shipping route running from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through international Arctic waters could be a reality as early as 2030-205according to some experts.

The new route would bypass the current top Asian ports but could make northern ports like Reykjavík, Iceland a “new Singapore,” says Papp.

This is something countries like Singapore and China are already preparing for; establishing a presence in places like Iceland and looking for ways to market their expertise, trade and container experience to polar nations over the longterm.

While the focus of the Arctic Council is often on what is accomplished during its two-year rotating chairmanships between polar nations, Papp said a longview approach to planning should also be incorporated.

“Ultimately what we ought to be doing is being more like Singapore and China, looking out decades in advance,” he said. “One of those things that the Arctic Council should be doing now, is to prepare us, and the Arctic, for what is going to occur.”

Arctic Council chairmanship

The United States took over the Arctic Council chairmanship from Canada this year.

The U.S. program is titled One Arctic: Shared opportunities, challenges and responsibilites,  with a focus on climate change , maritime safety and security, and improving the living conditions of those in the world’s Arctic communities.

This is the second time the United States has headed the international forum.

The U.S. first presided over the Council from 1998 to 2000.

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)


Arctic Council Members:

Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, United States

Year formed: 1996

Arctic council permanent participants:

Arctic Athabaskan Council, Aleut International Association,  Gwich’in Council International, Inuit Circumpolar Council, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North,
Saami Council

Arctic Council observer countries:

France, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain, United Kingdom, China, Italy, Japan, Korea, Singapore, India

To read the French-language version of this story, click HERE

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: The Arctic Council – What was accomplished and where we go from here, Eye on the Arctic

China: China’s silk road plans could challenge Northern Sea Route, Blog by Mia Bennett

Finland: US seeks Finnish support for Arctic goals, Yle News

Norway:  China eyes Arctic Norway infrastructure projects, Barents Observer

Russia:  The Arctic Council’s Immunity to Crimean Flu, Blog by Heather Exner-Pirot

Sweden:   Arctic Council – From looking out to looking in, Blog by Mia Bennett, Cryopolitics

United States:  Obama defends Arctic drilling weeks after Kerry promotes clean energy at Arctic Council, Blog by Mia Bennett


Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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