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Alaska on the frontlines

  • Author: Stephen A. Cheney
    | Opinion
  • Updated: August 14
  • Published August 14

In this photo taken Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, the USCGC Healy, lies moored to the pier in Juneau, Alaska. The USCGC Healy visited Juneau, mooring downtown on its way home to its homeport in Seattle. The Coast Guard's only medium icebreaker, the Healy has been conducting scientific research in the Arctic with researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and the University of Washington. (Peter Segall/Juneau Empire via AP)

In 2019, Alaska experienced its warmest month, summer, and year on record. This year, it recorded some of the hottest average May temperatures on the globe. America’s northernmost state is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the world—and much more rapidly than the continental U.S.

Alaska is America’s front line against climate change. The impacts climate change has on America’s national security are being felt today in Alaska, as U.S. military units are preparing for an open Arctic Ocean and threats to Alaska bases. Federal, state and local leaders need to work with the military, as climate change transforms Alaska’s security environment and economic foundations.

Alaska has always played an important strategic role in American security. Throughout U.S. history, Alaska was the gate to the North Pacific, a WWII wartime theater, and a Cold War missile defense bastion. Now, as Air Force General and USNORTHCOM Commander Terrence O’Shaughnessy noted to Congress in February, a rapidly warming Arctic has become the “new frontline to our homeland defense.”

Melting Arctic sea ice facilitates great power competition in the Far North, and this new geopolitical reality brings both challenges and opportunities. The challenge is in combating security threats from increased Russian and Chinese polar activity. These threats range from more frequent Russian incursions into Alaskan airspace to Chinese economic statecraft. The federal government must help Alaska play its critical homeland security role by: ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea; updating our Arctic strategy; renovating existing military infrastructure to ensure climate resilience; and funding new infrastructure that promotes greater sea-based power projection. Priority for new projects should go to a communications system, deep-water ports and enhanced icebreaking capabilities.

With challenge comes opportunity. New military infrastructure will be dual-use, benefitting civilian activities that promote Alaska’s economic growth, such as a deep-water port. Additionally, an opening Arctic is an opportunity for the U.S. to reassert itself as a global leader and take a more active interest in Arctic affairs. By framing the build-up of Alaska’s civilian and military infrastructure in terms of homeland security, the U.S. can assert a defensive posture that promotes peace.

As climate change is altering Alaska’s security environment, it also has the potential to transform Alaska’s economy. Three key sectors to watch are natural resource development, sustainable fisheries, and commercial shipping. Opportunities in these sectors arise from increased access, while the challenge comes from ensuring sustainable and peaceful economic development. The U.S. must play a leadership role in establishing rules of the road as international waters become more and more crowded.

An opening Arctic expands opportunities for onshore and offshore development of natural resources. Oil and gas exploration will be economically important. Still, state and local governments should also focus on the opportunities arising in renewable energy production—especially solar, offshore wind, and hydroelectric power. In the short term, climate change will give hydroelectricity a boost as increased glacial melt leads to more powerful freshwater flows. Alaskan officials would do well to harness this energy while planning for longer-term diversification and resilience. As demonstrated by the dramatic impact of COVID-19 on oil and gas industries, diversification is key to a secure energy future.

Warming oceans and melting sea ice also present opportunities for Alaskan fisheries and commercial shipping. Changing water temperatures may introduce new fish species into Alaskan waters; increased access for cargo and tanker ships, tour boats, and government vessels will boost sectors like tourism and shipping. The blue economy, which embraces the idea that sustainable economic growth and ecological conservation can coexist, provides a welcome roadmap for the management of new fisheries and increased shipping traffic.

The prospect of expanded economic access in the High North does not come without challenges. An overreliance on increasingly accessible oil and natural gas will accelerate Alaska’s (and the world’s) already rapid pace of warming. Increased oil and gas exploration must be sustainable and in a manner that prevents spills since oil clean-up in cold environments is notoriously challenging. It must also be done peacefully, with government officials and business executives adhering to internationally recognized maritime boundaries and laws. The often-heated conflicts over resource exploitation in the South China Sea must not move northward.

Similar challenges arise in the fishing and shipping sectors. Although warming waters introduce new fish species, they adversely affect traditional species such as salmon and Pacific cod, which are Alaska food staples and export commodities. Warming waters may push some fish northward into international Arctic waters — raising the possibility of conflict over these resources. The U.S. must promote adherence to international law and preserve freedom of navigation. 

Many of the challenges and opportunities I have laid out are not new to the Arctic. Climate change has only made addressing them more urgent. In 2016, I was a member of the State Department’s International Security Advisory Board. We issued a paper with recommendations for the Arctic, many of which I have also advocated for here. Unfortunately, four years have passed and several of these recommendations have yet to be implemented.

America is only an Arctic state because of Alaska, which is currently bearing the brunt of global climate change. Any comprehensive U.S. strategy for the Arctic must begin by helping Alaska embrace the opportunities and meet the challenges of its rapid warming. By bolstering Alaska’s climate security and resilience, the U.S. can also project broader Arctic leadership at a time when it is sorely needed.

Brigadier Gen. Stephen A. Cheney is a retired Marine Corps brigadier general and the President of the American Security Project (ASP), a nonpartisan national security think tank. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and served in the Marine Corps for over 30 years. He was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations task force that produced the report “Arctic Imperatives” in 2017 and a study group member with the State Department’s International Security Advisory Board, which wrote the “Report on Arctic Policy” in 2016.

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