Now trending in DC: Arctic issues

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The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star transits near the beginning of the ice edge in the Chukchi Sea north of Wainwright, Alaska, Tuesday, July 16, 2013. (Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Mooers/U.S. Coast Guard)
The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star transits near the beginning of the ice edge in the Chukchi Sea north of Wainwright, Alaska, Tuesday, July 16, 2013. (Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Mooers/U.S. Coast Guard)

WASHINGTON — With Alaska’s Arctic attracting increasing attention from policymakers and political wonks in Washington, D.C., Alaska lawmakers hope to turn that attention into tangible funds.

While interest in the region has been slowing growing for some time, several factors have converged to vault it to new prominence in Beltway circles. The United States is working its way through the second of two years as head of the Arctic Council; President Barack Obama is taking a whack at crafting a climate change legacy; and private industries are eyeing the prospect of  northern shipping routes opened by melting polar ice.

That translates to a lot of Arctic talk in Washington, despite a lack of attention elsewhere in the Lower 48.

“We are detached from our Arctic. Alaskans understand it, but the rest of the country really doesn’t think about the United States being an Arctic nation,” said retired Coast Guard Adm. Robert Papp, who serves as the U.S. special representative for the Arctic.

But attention drawn by Obama’s summer 2015 visit to the Alaska Arctic offered an entry point for the interest of policy leaders in Washington on issues related to climate change, Native rights and national security. And upon the president’s return to the White House, he told staffers that the Arctic was his new top priority, Papp said.

One result over the last year “has been an ascension of focus on the Arctic issue in the federal family, covering the range of issues that pertain to the Arctic, Native and tribal health, water and sanitation, energy, state and local, international and in other dimensions as well,” said Mark Brzezinski, who heads the White House’s Arctic Executive Steering Committee.

And “it’s about time,” said Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who joined Papp and Brzezinski on a panel at the Council on Foreign Relations that took place Thursday a few blocks from the White House.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star completes ice drills in the Arctic July 3, 2013. (Petty Officer 3rd Class Rachel French/U.S. Coast Guard)
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star completes ice drills in the Arctic July 3, 2013. (Petty Officer 3rd Class Rachel French/U.S. Coast Guard)

Murkowski, who pushed for years for new heavy-duty icebreakers for the region, is on the cusp of securing $1 billion to build one, having already secured a line item in a key spending bill. Obama had pledged to accelerate the construction of an icebreaker, and the Senate took the president’s funding request a step further, offering to fully fund the ship construction upfront.

The interest in the Arctic has not waned in the Obama White House since the president’s visit last year, Brzezinski said. By September, one year from Obama’s visit, nine of 18 cabinet secretaries and deputies will have visited Alaska or the Arctic, Brzezinski said.

On Friday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch was to meet with Alaska Native officials in Anchorage. Next week, when Secretary of State John Kerry is set to visit Greenland and Denmark, Arctic issues are expected to be a central point of discussion.

The interest in the Arctic has not waned in the Obama White House since the president’s visit last year, Brzezinski said. By September, one year from Obama’s visit, nine of 18 cabinet secretaries and deputies will have visited Alaska or the Arctic, Brzezinski said.

On Friday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch was to meet with Alaska Native officials in Anchorage. Next week, when Secretary of State John Kerry is set to visit Greenland and Denmark, Arctic issues are expected to be a central point of discussion.

“The higher meaning of the president’s trip to the Arctic was that the looming crisis in the Arctic is a tangible preview of the looming crisis of the global condition” in terms of rising temperatures, coastal erosion and changing weather patterns, Brzezinski said.

To that end, the White House is convening a meeting of science ministers on Sept. 28, inviting high-level officials from more than 20 countries that have shown an interest in Arctic research.

The White House is also crafting a “science and cooperation agreement with Russia,” Brzezinski said. While the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Russia over its military actions in Ukraine, the one key area of ongoing cooperation between the U.S. and Russia remains the Arctic.

Meanwhile, the Arctic has become the focus of a wealth of pondering from Washington think tanks.

The Council on Foreign Relations has formed a task force to provide Arctic policy recommendations for the next president. The Wilson Center has its Polar Initiative, the Center for Strategic and International Study has an Arctic program, and the Pew Charitable Trusts’ “Protecting Life in the Arctic” project is developing model rules for the region’s new shipping routes. The Atlantic Council and the Brookings Institute have held Arctic events in recent months. And there’s even an all-Arctic think tank — The Arctic Institute.

On Thursday, Murkowski urged policy wonks to remember that America’s Arctic is a populated place and to avoid seeing it as a “snow globe” as they eye solutions for climate change, shipping needs and Arctic security.

“Don’t forget the people of the Arctic,” she cautioned.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  Obama, Trudeau announce plans to fight Arctic oil and gas pollution, Alaska Dispatch News

Finland:  Japan, Finland agree to boost cooperation in the Arctic, The Indpendent Barents Observer

Iceland:  Nordic countries discuss closer defense cooperation, The Independent Barents Observer

Norway: Arctic Council aims to boost business, Barents Observer

Russia: Japan wants more Arctic cooperation with Russia, Barents Observer

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

United States:  Arctic remains refuge of friendly US-Russia relations, Alaska Dispatch News

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