World's attention has turned to the Arctic

Nothing that happens in the Arctic stays in the Arctic. Because of global warming, this is not a play on words but a truism. Climate change can no longer be denied but must be dealt with. It is opening up an entire region, once silent and perpetually frozen, to commerce, transport, mining and all the other benefits and ills of modern life. Last month, the Crystal Serenity, a giant cruise ship used to plying warm seas, sailed across the top of the world, just one example of a radical transformation bringing the Arctic to the center of the global future.

The Arctic can no longer play second fiddle to other parts of the globe. It's one of the world's last major frontiers and its value to every nation cannot be overstated. That includes the United States, a major Arctic nation with vital interests at stake.

Last year, President Barack Obama delivered remarks at the historic GLACIER summit of 18 nations in Anchorage, signaling the region's critical importance to us and to all other nations that took part. Now recognizing that the first step toward action is understanding, the White House will convene the first Arctic Science Ministerial on Wednesday. It will emphasize the importance of science in creating a common knowledge base of changes that are radically transforming the Arctic, jump-start international relationships and underscore the vital importance of science diplomacy to meeting the Arctic's unavoidable challenges.

[Climate change demands close watch, accurate measures in Arctic]

In recent years, concerns about the Arctic have centered on Russia. Its aggressive actions in its near-abroad, notably in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, have created apprehensions in the United States and other Arctic nations about its intentions in the Far North. Russia has expanded its military presence along its vast Arctic borders (though still not to Cold War levels); claimed preeminence in oil and gas, mining and fisheries in large areas of the Arctic as its territorial right; and planned to exploit shipping through the Northern Sea Route, made more accessible by the diminishing polar ice cap.

Yet Russia is also beginning to join other Arctic nations in recognizing that climate change will degrade its environment, that the challenge can only be met in common and that it has to cooperate as well as compete with other nations with Arctic interests. Thus, it is taking part in the White House ministerial with other nations' science ministers. And despite Russia's behavior elsewhere, we believe it is in the U.S.' interest to have Moscow engaged.

The Arctic Science Ministerial is bringing together science ministers and other senior officials from all member states of the Arctic Council: the United States (the current chair), Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and many non-Arctic nations such as Japan and South Korea. Together, they will build upon current successful collaboration on Arctic science, ocean and environmental monitoring, climate change, energy, telecommunications, data sharing and research.

The gathering will advance understanding of Arctic science challenges, strengthen Arctic observation and data sharing, build regional resilience to changing conditions and promote education for Alaska Natives and indigenous communities in the other Arctic nations.

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The U.S. Arctic Executive Steering Committee, under the auspices of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is organizing and leading this science ministerial, with specific science and research goals. This is a true "whole of government" effort, involving every agency actively involved in the U.S. Arctic strategy, including the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, National Air and Space Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Science Foundation.

The meeting can be the model for a new type of global engagement, based on three key principles:

1.  Advancing scientific understanding is strategically important and can have no boundaries.

2.  Science diplomacy can support key U.S. diplomatic and security objectives by building trust and developing cooperation.

3. Cooperation in key regions needs to involve partners outside the region: Many non-Arctic nations, such as Japan and even China, can make important contributions to Arctic science.

As it demonstrates these key principles and gains international commitment to them, the White House Arctic Science Ministerial can become a pivotal point in the history of humankind's necessary efforts to deal with climate change, the single greatest challenge of our time.

Sherri Goodman is a former deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security, founder of the Center for Naval Analyses Military Advisory Board and public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. Gen. Lester Lyles retired as a four-star general after 35 years of service and various commands in the U.S. Air Force. He now serves on several corporate and advisory boards. Ambassador Robert Hunter is a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and an official for Europe and the Middle East at the National Security Council in the White House. All three  are members of an advisory board reporting to the U.S. Department of State.  The views expressed here are their own and are not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of State or U.S. government.

The views expressed here are the writers' and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.