Homeland Security should prioritize climate security, Indigenous primacy in its Arctic strategy

On Jan. 14, days prior to the incoming new administration, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released its very first Arctic Strategy. Immediately apparent was the lack of acknowledgement and consideration involving climate change, especially natural hazards which continue to increase in frequency, duration and intensity. Moreover, the strategy ignores impacts that not only affect both civic defense and response, but also the overall ability to secure the homeland. The Arctic represents a key region concerning climate security issues and should be appropriately reflected in primary national guidance. As such, a reformed policy should be published in order to align with whole-of-government responsibilities involving the U.S. Arctic. This article provides essential factors that can contribute to the development of revised strategy.

The Stafford Act

Where its fundamental policy design was for response and recovery to no-notice or little-notice events, the Arctic’s greatest natural disaster challenges are slow-moving, somewhat methodical, and simply do not fit the legislative intent of the 1988 Stafford Act. The underlying concern is that, within the current national system, if one disaster can be blamed on climate change, any disaster could be blamed on climate change. The result could be a collapse in the functionality of the response and recovery framework. The impacts of climate change are now clearly visible, and today’s outdated process involving case-by-case management is not sustainable.

Although the strategy discusses key external partnerships as critical to success, authentic partnerships from within Alaska’s federally recognized tribes are equally — if not more — critical. Authentic government-to-government relationships in Alaska increasingly require policies specifically designed for Alaska tribes. The 1988 Stafford Act was originally crafted with only states in mind, and Indigenous communities, particularly those in the Arctic, were simply not a consideration. One only needs to review the Alaska Native communities of Newtok (Niugtaq) and Kivalina (Kivalliñiq) to illustrate the problematic nature of the policy. Both communities sought disaster assistance under the Stafford Act as a result of coastal erosion caused by climatic change. Unfortunately, the federal government could not provide Stafford Act assistance because such disasters do not meet eligibility of the Act and other solutions were required.

To be sure, the Stafford Act is overwhelmingly viewed by emergency management professionals as a successful policy for most disasters affecting the nation. However, it cannot meet the needs of Alaska’s Indigenous communities for many climate change impacts. Moreover, Alaska’s Arctic-related disasters can expose the Stafford Act to unintended consequences, as states creatively develop disaster narratives that politically marginalize the legislative intent and purpose behind the Stafford Act. Accordingly, a balance in terminology, phrases and policies becomes imperative to any Arctic strategy set to include the U.S. Arctic.

Alaska’s Arctic Indigenous communities

The strategy makes reference to Executive Order 13175, requiring consultation with federally recognized tribes. However, many Indigenous communities openly share frustrations about the lack of policy implementation within good faith and intent. Further aggravating is that all federally recognized tribes face a continuous barrage of agencies they must constantly navigate, irrespective of disasters.


The unique legal circumstances of Alaska’s Indigenous communities remain overlooked in the strategy. Where most tribes in the Lower 48 states have established treaties and delineated reservations, all but one of Alaska’s federally recognized tribes exist in a complex web of previous policies that do not afford both federal recognition and unquestionable sovereignty over defined lands. Acknowledgement, then recognition and meaningful inclusion of Indigenous consultation are instrumental in establishing long-term, viable relationships involving U.S. Arctic homeland security.

The value of culture

Though the strategy projects a legitimate concern about the national defense and increasing importance of the Arctic, it distinctly highlights resources and underemphasizes the deep cultural value that Alaskans consider the foundational core of the Arctic — its Indigenous peoples.

History teaches how lack of effective Indigenous consideration leads to avoidable outcomes. For example, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, many of its Indigenous communities in the Arctic faced starvation because their cultures had been perceptibly devalued and suppressed. Such events inform how other policy priorities can result in significant impacts to oft-fragile Indigenous communities. Rather than delay action, the United States should provide a more purposeful strategy that confronts the problems distressing Alaska’s Indigenous communities, including significant food (in)security issues that continue to worsen.

As the newest executive agency, DHS had the opportunity to establish sensible precedent for the Arctic. However, the inaugural DHS Arctic strategy omitted meaningful consideration of the most pressing security issues that concern and affect the actual residents of Alaska and the U.S. Arctic, where climate change impacts are magnified and accelerated. Homeland security responsibilities are shared by numerous agencies and should be guided by effectual strategy. To that end, a revised homeland security Arctic strategy is needed in order for the United States to demonstrate its commitments from the local-to-international level, especially as it reenters the global climate change regime.

John Pennington is the former FEMA Region X Director (Alaska, Oregon, Idaho and Washington). He is an Indigenous Studies Ph.D. student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he also serves as faculty and an Assistant Director of the Center for Arctic Security and Resilience.

Troy Bouffard is the Director of the Center for Arctic Security and Resilience at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Troy is also a Defense Contractor with USNORTHCOM — the Department of Defense combatant command responsible for implementing DSCA.

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