U.S. Senator Begich: Proposals for a “Second Arctic Century”

Alaska Senator Mark Begich – the Democrat who defeated Ted Stevens in November 2008 – has devised a list of five initiatives to usher in what he calls the “Second Arctic Century,” a reference to the discovery of the North Pole 100 years ago. He discussed some of his proposals in a radio interview recently with the Alaska Public Radio Network.

Radio Interview – Radio Interview, June 10, 2009

The Five Proposals:

  1. Ratification of two international treaties that affect the Arctic: UNCLOS and POPs
  2. Creation of an Arctic Ambassador
  3. Creation of an Arctic Regional Citizens Advisory Council
  4. More funding and improved coordination of Arctic science
  5. Increased investment in Arctic infrastructure (notably ice breakers, submarines, and the Coast Guard)

Joining UNCLOS would allow the U.S. to have a say in Arctic affairs. Currently, it’s one of the few countries in the world that hasn’t ratified the treaty, along with Libya and North Korea. Begich is interested in not just the signing of UNCLOS, but the creation of an entirely new American oceans policy. He said of the melting ice pack, “The change is opening new opportunities. Reduction of the Arctic icepack could open new transportation corridors and allow expansion of resource development such as oil and gas, although these opportunities also carry great risks.” Therefore, Alaska, which will be most affected by the melting ice, would welcome a new oceans policy.

The second treaty is POPS, or the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. It still has yet to be ratified by the Senate despite being adopted in 2001. POPs are toxins that travel through the air and water, building up in the fat of marine mammals – which are then consumed by indigenous people, posing a health risk.

Begich is calling for the creation of an Arctic Ambassador “because other members of the Arctic Council have ambassadors representing them at high-level meetings.” Having such an official would create a more durable, long-term American policy in the Arctic.

He also wants a Regional Citizens Advisory Council made up of local residents to give input on Arctic affairs. This body would be modeled after the Prince William Sound citizens advisory council, which was created in response to the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. Begich observed, “We must make the needed investments to ensure the United States maintains its leadership at the top of our globe. And we must listen to and address the needs of the residents of the Arctic.”

In regards to improving research efforts in the Arctic, the senator remarked, “Every research season it seems the Arctic is crisscrossed with researchers working independently on projects, each producing good science. We need a coordinated and integrated research and monitoring plan.” Perhaps something along the lines of the International Polar Year, which successfully coordinated scientists from all over the world to work on joint studies, could be enabled within the American research community.

Finally, he calls for investment in a new fleet of icebreakers. Last week, we saw how Canada is scaling back its plans for icebreakers due to economic difficulties, but with the U.S. government ramping up spending in practically every arena, it’s possible that the Arctic could stand to benefit. Furthermore, Begich noted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears to have a personal interest in Arctic policy – perhaps a good sign for investment in infrastructure, technology, and equipment in the region. One thing’s for sure: if the U.S. does invest in new icebreakers, Canadians will be up in arms. Just reading the comments posted to online news articles gives a sense of how many people north of the 49th parallel feel that their government needs to do more to stand up to the Americans and the Russians in defending their Arctic sovereignty.

Begich, one of the few clear voices in American Arctic policy, will lead a delegation of senators on a “climate tour” of Alaska in August. According to the Arctic Sounder, the delegation will observe “erosion in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, climate change impacts on glaciers and forests in Southcentral Alaska,” and will visit “the North Slope of Alaska to view new energy technologies used in northern oil and gas production.”

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