Climate Change News

United States to Chair Arctic Council at Challenging Time

The proposed U.S. agenda during its chairmanship of the Arctic Council focuses on ocean safety, improving economic and living conditions, and climate change.


The United States will pursue an ambitious agenda while facing many geopolitical challenges when it takes over the rotating chairmanship of the intergovernmental Arctic Council for 2 years beginning on 25 April, according to Adm. Robert Papp Jr. (retired), the U.S. Department of State’s special representative for the Arctic.

Adm. Robert Papp, Jr. speaking at the Brookings Institution on 12 March. Credit: Randy Showstack
Adm. Robert Papp, Jr. speaking at the Brookings Institution on 12 March. Credit: Randy Showstack

The formal agenda the United States has proposed to the other parties in the council includes Arctic Ocean safety, security, and stewardship; improving economic and living conditions; and addressing the impacts of climate change, Papp said in a 12 March speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D. C.

“I will lay claim to our United States program probably being the most forward leaning, most ambitious program that’s ever been proposed during a chairmanship of the Arctic Council,” he said.

Those agenda items, which need to be approved by all eight member states, fall under the theme of “One Arctic: Shared opportunities, challenges, and responsibilities.” “If nothing else comes across during our chairmanship,” Papp said, “that’s what I want everybody to remember.”

Arctic Priorities

Papp, who served as head of the U.S. Coast Guard from 2010 to 2014, said that ensuring Arctic safety and security is of paramount importance. The Arctic “is opening up. There are new maritime routes that are developing. It’s interesting, it’s exciting, and I think it’s going to change the world in the way we conduct commerce over time.”

Adapting to climate change also is vital, he said. “We are not going to cure climate change within the Arctic Council, but we need to draw attention to the effects of climate change and also come up with ways to mitigate and adapt to it, to hopefully protect the environment of the Arctic.”

He stressed the need to improve scientific monitoring in the Arctic. “We are looking at various mapping systems, sensors; we are looking at inventorying what other countries are doing and bringing them together so we can have better observations,” Papp said. He also noted the great need for increased Arctic satellite coverage—whether for communications, observation, or navigation—because most U.S. satellites are not optimized for higher latitudes. “We are going to attempt to identify those [sensors] that are needed,” he said, “and start moving toward getting them resourced.”

Improving the economic and living conditions of people living in the Arctic is also a key agenda item, with potential projects ranging from developing renewable energy resources to improving telecommunications, he said.

Papp also focused on the need to raise the visibility of the Arctic and to convince Americans that the United States is an Arctic nation. “I’ve had a hard time over the years to try to convince people that we are a maritime nation, much less an Arctic nation,” Papp explained.

Geopolitical Challenges

Some analysts and politicians have expressed concern about the military buildup in many areas of the Arctic by Russia. For example, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Ark.) stated at a 12 March hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, “When you look at what the Russians are doing in the Arctic, it’s actually quite impressive: impressive, but disturbing.” He noted that Russia recently has made a decision to activate four new brigades in the Arctic.

At Brookings, Papp said that countries can legitimately build search and rescue facilities and upgrade airfields to provide logistics. Regarding Russian activities, he said, “I am willing to, at face value, wait and see how that develops and try to cut through some of the rhetoric that’s constantly put out there.”

Papp elaborated on his comments in response to major Russian military exercises that began throughout the Arctic on 16 March, a few days after the start of Norwegian military drills. He told Eos, “While we recognize the need for routine military training activity, any such activity must be consistent with international law and conducted with due regard for the rights of other nations and the safety of other aircraft and vessels.”

Despite current tensions with Russia, particularly with regard to the Ukraine, Papp stressed in his Brookings address the importance of maintaining Russia as a key Arctic Council member. The United States and the six other council member countries not including Russia believe that “for the good of the Arctic, for the environment, and for other issues, we need to keep Russia in the fold and keep communications open,” he said.

The United States “is deeply appreciative” that the other Arctic Council countries “have stood shoulder to shoulder together in terms of their opposition to the unlawful incursions in the Ukraine and Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty,” he said. “I have relayed the message that the military rhetoric [and] the actions by the Russians in Ukraine are not helpful to keeping the line of communication open, yet we remain committed to doing that.”

Law of the Sea

Another geopolitical challenge is that the United States has not yet acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. At a 5 March hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Papp testified that because the United States has not signed the treaty, the country is “at a significant disadvantage relative to the other Arctic ocean coastal states.” The treaty aims to establish “a legal order” to promote the peaceful use of the oceans, conservation, and equitable use of marine resources. Papp said that becoming a party to the treaty would allow the United States to fully secure its rights to the continental shelf off the coast of Alaska.

Although a number of nations are staking claims in the Arctic, Papp told Eos that he is not convinced that there is a “resource rush” going on. “It’s a very slow and deliberate process, and while everybody talks about it being like a gold rush, it’s not like that at all,” he said. He said that for years countries have been providing and developing the science to be able to validate claims under the treaty.

Meeting Resource Needs

Despite U.S. endeavors in the Arctic and plans at the Arctic Council, Papp said that others look at the lack of U.S. icebreakers and other resources in the Arctic and question the country’s commitment to the region.

Papp said that the White House’s 21 January executive order, “Enhancing Coordination of National Efforts in the Arctic,” will help with resource needs. The executive order establishes an Arctic Executive Steering Committee to help coordinate the broad range of U.S. interagency activity in the Arctic. Papp said he hopes that the executive order will lead to setting some priorities that “hopefully lead to committing some resources as well to the needs of the Arctic.”

Some, including senators at the 5 March hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, have also expressed concern about a lack of resources available for Papp to conduct his work. In addition, John Farrell, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, told Eos, “One of the challenges of the U.S. taking the helm of the chairmanship program is not just to propose an ambitious program but to also see that there are the resources available to implement that ambitious program to the full extent that it’s dreamed to be.”

Papp told Eos that although there are only a few people in his office, “scores” of people within the government are working on Arctic issues. “We are in a time of scarce resources and pressure on the federal government,” he said. However, he said, “We are getting sufficient funding to carry out our duties right now.” He explained that funding has “been pieced together within the State Department and we will do our best to make sure we are good stewards of the money that we are given.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2015), United States to chair Arctic Council at challenging time, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO026525. Published on 17 March 2015.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0