Arthur I. Cyr: President Obama’s Arctic voyage provides opportunity
President Barack Obama’s trip to Alaska highlights vital foreign policy as well as environmental challenges. The difficulties confronting the global north undeniably are serious. This gathering is related to the Arctic Council, which includes the Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.
At the end of September 2013, a major report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provided evidence that most global warming since 1950 has occurred because of polluting human activities. The IPCC was established in 1988 by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization. An earlier report in 2007 developed the preliminary case for a central human role rather than purely natural causes of recent climate change.
Specifically, heat trapped by greenhouse gases over time is raising temperatures worldwide. This in turn is melting polar ice formations, heating and raising water levels of the oceans and inland seas, and changing the atmosphere.
Those leading this research emphasize the importance of collective global response. UN Environment Program Executive Director and Under Secretary-General Achim Steiner has declared that continuing accumulation of gasses requires immediate action.
Melting polar ice is rapidly revealing enormous mineral deposits previously unavailable for exploitation, in turn changing political dynamics within and between nations. China has become a major investor.
Russia spearheaded by President Vladimir Putin now plays a principal international leadership role. Simultaneous with the release of the IPCC report, the Third International Arctic Forum was held in the far northern town of Salekhard. In a speech there, Putin emphasized protecting the Arctic environment must go hand in hand with orderly investment.
In August, the Russian Geographical Society and Russian petroleum company Rosneft organized an international conference in Moscow attended by approximately one thousand people. The Arctic was given emphasis.
Environmental and territorial conflicts can be expected to multiply. Disputes have aligned Russia against Canada and Denmark regarding control of the Lomonosov Ridge, most of which is in international waters.
Other nations involved in such disagreements include Finland, Iceland, Sweden and the U.S. Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a nation can claim resources beyond a 200 mile limit if a direct continuous continental shelf can be established.
There is also encouraging history regarding international Arctic cooperation. International Polar Years were held in 1882-1883, 1932-1933 and 2007-2009.
The first two inspired the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-1958, during the height of the Cold War. American scientific and government leadership was instrumental in launching and successfully completing this comprehensive global research and policy enterprise.
Discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belts was one of numerous IGY scientific achievements. Effective American political leadership was also successful. Demilitarization of Antarctica was initiated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This was the first major arms control agreement of the Cold War, and provided an important foundation for later efforts, including the breakthrough atmospheric nuclear test ban treaty of 1963.
By contrast, the Obama administration has been largely disengaged. President Barack Obama’s soaring rhetoric regarding the global environment contrasts with absence of action, beyond largely symbolic gestures geared to the political home front.
Current White House interest in the Arctic does provide momentum, which could be exploited by Secretary of State John Kerry. Another well-positioned key leader is UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Ban is from South Korea, a nation uniquely spanning the global rich-poor divide. International law provides a foundation for environmental protection along with resource development.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.