Climate change is a security threat to the Arctic and the time to act is now

President Obama should be congratulated for highlighting the growing links between U.S. national security and climate change in his address before the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s graduation ceremony earlier this week. The president’s speech drew upon earlier administration documents (the Third National Climate Assessment, the White House’s 2015 National Security Strategy, the Department of Defense’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, and the 2014 Department of Homeland Security’s Quadrennial Homeland Security Review) to highlight the numerous challenges posed to our nation and the world by climate change, including:

  • Threats to the world’s coastal infrastructure
  • Rising temperatures and extreme weather
  • Creation of failed states
  • Degradation to the marine environment and critical ecological regions around the globe
  • Threats to our energy production and delivery systems
  • The devastating impact on native Arctic inhabitants

While these issues are important and deserve attention, the president was singularly silent on how best to manage threats, posed to the Arctic and the global environment by the rush to develop or utilize its resources (including energy, minerals, fish, and tourism) as the region opens with the melting of sea ice. I raise none of these issues to disagree with the president’s policies, or to suggest we should not develop the region’s resources or allow enhanced international maritime trade through our waters. In fact, I have often called for the economic development of Alaska with high safety standards for oil and gas production. If we allow these activities to proceed, we must be willing to provide the resources for infrastructure of all kinds: pipelines, onshore and offshore, and including ports, airfields, housing, etc., in order to be prepared for all contingencies.

Additionally, the president did not make any mention of the financial demands posed to the country to even meet the challenges in our own Arctic region of Alaska, let alone the many commitments we have already made in the Arctic Council, vis-à-vis instituting a true search and rescue capability and an oil spill prevention and response mechanism. The sad reality is that for all intents and purposes the United States has one heavy icebreaker to patrol our entire Arctic region. With cruise ships now sailing into very dangerous areas without adequate sea mapping, the prospect of a disaster occurring at least 800 miles from our nearest port in the Aleutians looms large. Were a cruise ship to run into ice, there is no logistical infrastructure in Northwest Alaska even to off lift passengers to on shore by helicopter. With icebreakers likely to cost at least $800 million to $1.5 billion each and take many years to build, where is the president’s clarion call to the Congress on the need for more revenue for our Coast Guard to deal with the challenges highlighted in his speech?

Likewise, with many Asian nations interested in the fish resources of the Arctic, where are the funds both to determine what fish exist in Arctic waters including fish migrating from the Pacific as well as their volumes and assessments of how to insure their sustainability? If the president is serious about the threat of climate change on America’s front door to the Arctic, where are the U.S. Coast Guard and the State of Alaska as well as the myriad of federal agencies responsible for various activities in Alaska going to get the requisite resources to carry out their mandates?

Lacking preparedness and response

As a result of the administration’s commendable recent decision, Shell will be allowed to proceed with drilling several wells in the Chukchi Sea, allowing for development that benefits not only Alaskans but also the entire United States. While Shell will be subject to stringent regulatory oversight, Russia also plans to drill in its area of the Chukchi as well. What would happen if the Russians had an accident and the current brought oil into Alaskan waters? Would the United States, in concert with the Russians have the capability to contain it? Similarly, if there were a major maritime disaster in the Bering Strait where a South Korean ship literally disappeared several years ago, what response capability would we have if a ship containing hazardous cargo sank? While I applaud the decision of the administration to allow Shell to drill in the Chukchi, I am apprehensive of the U.S. commitment and ability to respond to any matter of national security in the Arctic, in part due to the severe lack of federal funds going to support this region.

Consequently, while recognizing that the American and broader Arctic is only a small part of the myriad of issues you identified in your Coast Guard address, I would urge that you begin to inform Congress and the American people of the large costs we may have to incur to protect ourselves against the forthcoming economic and social ravages of climate change.

Recommendations for Arctic funding

As a first step to begin to prepare for the direct “existential” challenges posed to Alaska and our broader responsibilities as chair of the Arctic Council, I would recommend the following:

  1. A request to Congress for $1.2 billion dollars a year for 10 years to build a new fleet of ice worthy ships to deal with various contingencies in the Arctic (as defined by the Coast Guard) financed by an overall increase in the gasoline tax of $0.20/gallon of which $0.02 would go for Arctic infrastructure development;
  2. As an interim step before these ships can be built, the appropriation of funds for the leasing of two Arctic worthy vessels per year;
  3. An increase in alcohol and tobacco taxes (or perhaps a tax alongside the legalization of marijuana at the federal level) totaling $500 million dollars a year for 10 years for ancillary infrastructure development of ports, airfields, roads, etc. in Alaska to improve our ability to responds to climate contingencies both in  Alaska and throughout the circumpolar north;
  4. A surcharge of one percent on all adjusted federal taxable incomes in excess of $200,000 and two percent on incomes above $500,000.

While there will be hews and cries by climate deniers and other opponents of any tax increase if as the president says the changing climate poses graves threat to our own and other nations security, these are modest proposals (particularly in comparison to an outright price on carbon) and should be passed with the greatest urgency.