President Obama should reject last-minute arctic policy

Rick Steiner

Regarding the new Arctic Policy issued in the final days of the Bush administration, the Obama administration should simply say "thanks, but no thanks."

The Arctic is one of the most precious, extraordinary, and threatened regions of the planet, and it is in crisis at present due to climate change. We desperately need a bold new arctic policy for the nation that addresses this crisis, but the policy issued in the final days of the Bush White House falls far short of what is needed.

The Bush policy was developed behind closed doors, consulting only a few individuals outside the administration, including only one member of Congress -- Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Another 534 members of Congress were not consulted, and there was no process to consult the Indigenous people in the Arctic, all Alaskans, and all Americans. The policy was issued despite repeated pleas to defer this major decision to the incoming administration.

On the positive side, the Bush Arctic Policy supports ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), shipping safeguards, best practices for oil and gas, and general environmental protection.

But the Bush policy does not respond to the greatest threat to the Arctic -- climate change and loss of sea ice and its associated ecosystem.

The last two arctic summers resulted in the lowest sea ice cover ever recorded, and summer sea ice may be gone entirely in the next five or 10 years. Many ice-dependent species are at severe risk due to climate change -- polar bears, ice seals, walruses and whales -- as are the Inupiat people living in the Arctic.

Our singular policy objective for the Arctic must be to preserve the sea ice ecosystem and the human cultures depending on it. We should designate the Arctic Ocean as an internationally managed Marine Protected Area. And any new national arctic policy must commit the nation to a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and to seek international agreements to dramatically reduce global emissions.

But the Bush policy simply suggests that "high levels of uncertainty remain concerning the effects of climate change," and that we should continue to "study changing climate conditions, with a view to preserving and enhancing economic opportunity in the arctic region."

In short, the last-minute Bush policy is more about what can we get from the Arctic rather than what we can do for it. An obvious intent is to facilitate fossil energy development in the Arctic, while doing nothing whatsoever to reduce CO2 emissions.

The Bush policy argues against the need for an arctic treaty among all eight arctic nations, which would be similar to the Antarctic Treaty restricting commercial and military activities.

It calls for the U.S. to "assert a more active and influential national presence to protect its arctic interests and project sea power throughout the region," to "preserve the global mobility of the United States military. ... throughout the Arctic region," and to secure free passage of vessels across Canada and Russia.

This seems to be more cold war chest-thumping than progressive policy.

Our national arctic policy must be bold, progressive, conservation-oriented, and address the serious arctic crisis with resolve. It must be developed in a transparent and participatory process.

And it must include strong protections against additional threats -- climate change, hydrocarbon extraction, shipping, mining, and other industrial activity.

We need a new "kinder and gentler" approach to the Arctic. But the last-minute Bush policy is not it. The Bush policy should be rescinded and rewritten with a view toward truly protecting the Arctic rather than exploiting it.

As change has come to America, let's see it in U.S. arctic policy.

Rick Steiner is a professor and conservation specialist at the University of Alaska Anchorage.