Has the Arctic Lost a Champion?

For over 150 years, the United States has been an Arctic power. And yet, that region has remained as far from national political consciousness as it is from the national capital. The United States has never reached the same level of commitment of effort and resources to this region as most others in the eight-member Arctic Council. Why hasn’t a keener national interest developed despite the accounts of those many thousands of Americans who study, explore and write about it? In my opinion, it is because the Arctic does not have a US champion to compel attention to the region’s place in our national consciousness. By a champion, I mean someone- like Rachel Carson for the environment, or Jacques Cousteau for the oceans- who can compel attention to an important and endangered part of our world. The Arctic faces extreme challenges that will affect the entire world, and a prominent American advocate to fight on its behalf is a key piece to solving the puzzle.

Following Secretary of State William Seward’s Alaska Purchase in 1867, the Arctic and Alaska came into national attention only fitfully: the gold rush of 1898, expeditions to the North Pole by American explorers, the brief World War II occupation of some Aleutian islands by Japanese forces, and the transit under and surfacing at the North Pole by US Navy submarines in the late 1950s. When President Obama became the first US president to visit the Arctic in his last year in office, it seemed there was a chance for a greater American awareness of the region. However, the current administration has demonstrated little interest.

This American apathy has become especially problematic as the Arctic today demands solutions to truly existential problems: the sea ice is melting and temperatures are rising. Melting permafrost is causing seaside towns, as most are in the Arctic, and their infrastructure to simply collapse. Climate change occurs in the Arctic twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet. The United States is, by capability, wealth, and location, best placed to remedy these ills. However, the current administration is populated by climate change skeptics and headed by a President who seems primarily concerned with American “energy dominance.” It seems unlikely, therefore, that a new Arctic “champion” will emerge from the executive branch. Enter Senator Lisa Murkowski.

 

To see the rest of this article, go to The Fletcher Forum.

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