(CNSNews.com) – As President Obama prepares to become the first sitting president to travel north of the Arctic Circle this week, the administration’s concerns revolve largely around climate change.
This contrasts with the more overtly geostrategic approach to the contested region being pursued by Russia, which this year carried out large-scale military maneuvers in the region involving Northern Fleet vessels and aircraft.
Secretary of State John Kerry is hosting a major conference in Anchorage, which Obama will attend on Monday, ahead of the president’s visit Wednesday to the small town of Kotzebue in the Alaskan Arctic.
The focus of the Anchorage event and the president’s three-day visit to the state is climate change, as Obama made clear in his weekly broadcast.
Citing wildfires, storm surges, shoreline erosion and melting glaciers, Obama said Alaskans are already living with the effects of climate change, adding that “if we do nothing,” temperatures in Alaska are projected to rise by 6-12 degrees by 2100.
“This is all real,” he said. “This is happening to our fellow Americans right now.”
Although Obama also spoke in the broadcast about ongoing U.S. oil and gas needs and the importance of relying more on domestic than foreign supplies, climate change appears to be center stage during the Alaska visit.
The one-day event being chaired by Kerry is called the “Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience” – or GLACIER.
According to the department, representatives from the U.S. and some 20 other nations with direct or indirect Arctic interests “will discuss individual and collective action to address climate change in the Arctic” and “raise the visibility of climate impacts in the Arctic as a harbinger for the world, and the Arctic’s unique role in global climate change.”
Further down the agenda, participants will also discuss other issues, such as emergency response and unregulated fishing in the region.
“It’s obvious that the president has chosen climate change as one of his legacy issues,” a senior State Department official briefing on the trip said from Anchorage on Friday. “It is the broader global issue of climate change, but as he’s learned more about the American Arctic and the rather significant impact that climate change is having on his country, he’s made the time to come up here and take a look at it himself.”
By contrast, Russia’s interests in the region center on expanding its military presence in support of its claims to a region believed to have significant untapped resources – especially as sea routes become more accessible due to receding sea ice, attributed to rising temperatures.
President Vladimir Putin in late 2013 announced that he had instructed military commanders to “devote special attention to deploying infrastructure and military units in the Arctic,” to protect Russia’s national interests.
Russia then reopened a Soviet-era military outpost on the New Siberian (Novosibirsk) islands – an archipelago in Russia’s far northeast – and said more would follow.
The Defense Ministry announced a decision to set up an Arctic Strategic Command, and the move to expand military presence in the Arctic was underscored by Putin in a revised military doctrine at the end of last year.
National identity, economic priority
An often-cited 2008 U.S. Geological Survey report found that “the Arctic accounts for about 13 percent of the undiscovered oil, 30 percent of the undiscovered natural gas, and 20 percent of the undiscovered natural gas liquids in the world.”
The United States, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark all have territory bordering the Arctic, but it is Russia that has been most aggressive in asserting its claims. It graphically underlined its intentions in 2007 when it dispatched a mini-submarine to plant a titanium Russian flag on the Arctic floor in a symbolic assertion of sovereignty.
Early this month, Moscow submitted to a United Nations body a claim for 463,000 square miles of the Arctic, including the North Pole, calling it an extension of its undersea continental shelf. More than a decade ago, the U.N. rejected a similar submission, asking Russia to provide more scientific evidence to back it up.
A new Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) study examining Moscow’s Arctic policy explains the significance to Russia of a region that accounts for around one-fifth of its gross domestic product and 22 percent of its exports.
“For Russia, the Arctic is an important issue of national identity, as well as an enormous economic priority (20 percent of Russia’s GDP is generated in the Arctic) and security necessity where national resources are spent,” it says.
“[E]nvironmental considerations (although noted in its strategic documents) and indigenous communities are largely an afterthought.”
“For the United States, it is the exact opposite,” CSIS Europe program director Heather Conley and research associate Caroline Rohloff write. “The United States does not see itself as an Arctic nation and it prioritizes the environment and scientific research first with economic development and security a distant second due to insufficient national resources and political support.”
Russia’s extensive Arctic claim was submitted to a U.N. body called the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, in line with the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Other countries, notably Denmark and Canada, also have claims in the region, although the U.S. has not submitted any, since it is has not ratified UNCLOS.
“For me, it comes as no surprise that the Russians’ claim is so large,” the senior State Department official said. “They have half the coastline of the Arctic Ocean and they have devoted a lot of science to documenting their claim, and they’re going through the proper process within the Law of the Sea Treaty.”
“And my only regret is that the United States is not able to have standing under that treaty because we have not acceded to it yet,” said the official, adding that the administration remains hopeful that Senate will ratify it.
UNCLOS opponents argue among other things that the treaty will subject U.S. sovereignty to an international body and involve burdensome environmental regulations. The military and business interests support ratification.