Melting Arctic Another Place for U.S. Military to Defend

Posted on 11/28/13
By Ryan Koronowski | Via ClimateProgress
NOAA scientists explore the Arctic during a 2005 mission. (NOAA photo via ThinkProgress)
NOAA scientists explore the Arctic during a 2005 mission. (NOAA photo via ClimateProgress)

For the first time, the Pentagon has a comprehensive strategy for the Arctic. This move is prompted mainly because climate change is causing the sea ice to steadily melt and allow ships to access more of the Arctic Ocean.

On Friday in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel helped to open the 5th Halifax International Security Forum by speaking about the Department of Defense’s Arctic Strategy. The Strategy opens by saying the Arctic is at a “strategic inflection point” because “its ice cap is diminishing more rapidly than projected.” This brings increasing “human activity, driven by economic opportunity” that ranges from shipping and fishing to fossil fuel extraction and tourism. Most experts believe there will be no Arctic sea ice in the summer by 2030.

Secretary Hagel said in his speech that the U.S. “will remain prepared to detect, deter, prevent and defeat threats to our homeland and we will continue to exercise U.S. sovereignty in and around Alaska.” He continued: “Throughout human history, mankind has raced to discover the next frontier. And time after time, discovery was swiftly followed by conflict. We cannot erase this history. But we can assure that history does not repeat itself in the Arctic.”

The focus for the Pentagon in the region, according to this document, is to prepare the United States to “work collaboratively with allies and partners to promote a balanced approach to improving human and environmental security in the region.” Arctic nations like the U.S. must focus on cooperative security at the top of the globe is because there has already been conflict over how this new access to the region should be managed. The more ice melts, the more that governments and oil companies will be tempted by the oil underneath the ice.

Earlier this year, Rear Admiral (Ret.) David Titley (and Former Chief Oceanographer for the Navy) said “the opening of the Arctic is the most immediate national security challenge presented by climate change.” In September, activists from Greenpeace protested Russia’s first offshore drilling rig, and were jailed for piracy.

The main goals outlined in this new document are: security and stability in the region; protection of the U.S. homeland and national interests; cooperation with other nations to “address challenges”; and preparation for a “wide range of challenges and contingencies.” Military goals include “missile defense and early warning; deployment of sea and air systems for strategic sealift, strategic deterrence, maritime presence, and maritime security operations; and ensuring freedom of the seas.”

All of these goals change as the globe warms, sea levels rise, and sea ice melts. Hagel said that “the challenge of global climate change, while not new to history, is new to the modern world.”

Climate change does not directly cause conflict, but it can add to the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. … The effects of climate change and new energy resources are far-reaching and unpredictable, demanding our attention and strategic thinking. While the opening of the Arctic will create unprecedented challenges, it will also create historic opportunities.

The Arctic Strategy’s approach follows on the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, released in May, which focused — perhaps a little too much — on how a warming Arctic would allow the U.S. to access currently-inaccessible fossil fuels.

Indeed, the main reason why the Arctic is warming enough to create such “historic opportunities” is the burning of fossil fuels that drives climate change. Earlier this year, NOAA began updating nautical charts to keep vessel safe as the ice changes so rapidly, and in September, the first-ever bulk freighter made the voyage from Vancouver to Finland. It was carrying coal.

The U.S. military is the largest single consumer of energy and oil on the planet. This is not good for the Pentagon’s budget, but it is also helping to drive the climatic forces that create the expanded responsibilities outlined in the Arctic Strategy. There are many efforts afoot in all branches of the military to reduce consumption and become reliant on more renewable sources of energy.

At the same time, the military is no stranger to responding to disasters that are likely to get worse as the world continues to warm. 13,000 Department of Defense personnel and seven warships responded to the devastation in the Philippines from Super Typhoon Haiyan. 14,000 provided relief in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

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