For the past several months, the Bush administration has been quietly writing a new Arctic policy for the United States, and sources say the president intends to sign and release the policy as a National Security Directive in the last weeks of his administration. The National Security Council and the State Department lead the process, with participation from several other federal agencies.
While it is laudable that the Bush administration is paying attention to the Arctic, at this point they should clearly defer such a major new policy initiative to the incoming Obama administration. Without doubt, this is far too important an issue for Bush to order a sweeping new policy for the nation on his way out the door.
The Arctic is in crisis due to climate change. The last two Arctic summers resulted in the lowest sea ice cover ever recorded, and summer sea ice may be gone entirely in the next five or 10 years. Many ice-dependent wildlife species are at severe risk due to climate change - polar bears, ice seals, walrus, and whales - as are the Inupiaq people living in the Arctic. Global climate and ocean circulation will be affected by an ice-free Arctic Ocean. Our singular, overarching policy objective for the Arctic must be to preserve the sea ice ecosystem, and the human cultures depending on it, as much as possible. We need an Arctic treaty with the other seven Arctic nations that protects the Arctic from commercial and military exploitation, much as the Antarctic Treaty protects Antarctica.
But the new Bush Arctic policy was developed behind closed doors, and the administration is keeping it a closely guarded secret. We have no idea what it does and does not say. The policy may be horrible, it may be wonderful, and likely it falls somewhere in between. Sources say it addresses several important issues such as oil and gas, shipping, research, international boundaries, Law of the Sea, national security and environmental protection. With estimates that 22 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves are in the Arctic, the temptation to open new areas to hydrocarbon extraction in the Arctic is a real concern. Given the anti-environment energy policies of the Bush administration, one can only wonder what this new Arctic policy may say regarding oil development. In addition to risk of catastrophic oil spills, the climate conundrum presented by Arctic hydrocarbons is obvious. Carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels lead to climate warming and the loss of Arctic sea ice, which in turn opens more areas in the Arctic to hydrocarbon development, the carbon produced by such ultimately winding up in the atmosphere, leading to more warming and the loss of yet more sea ice. And as the ice melts, world shipping will increasingly use routes across the Arctic Ocean, posing additional risk of shipwrecks, spills, and invasive species. And on the vicious cycle goes, until the Arctic we know and love is gone.
Who knows what the Bush administration has in mind for the Arctic as a last parting shot? But it is a virtual certainty that the Bush policy does not adequately protect the sensitive Arctic environment, nor does it do much to curtail climate change, which is by far and away the primary threat to the Arctic. Worse, a last-minute Bush policy may even promote increased risk to this already threatened region. The Arctic deserves better.
The Arctic is one of the most precious, unique, and severely threatened regions of the planet, and the U.S. desperately needs a new Arctic policy. But such a policy must be bold, progressive, conservation-oriented, and address the serious Arctic crisis with resolve. It must be developed in an open, transparent, and participatory process. And it must include strong protections against additional threats - climate change, petroleum extraction, shipping, mining, and other industrial activity. The new policy must not be a prescription for additional threat and injury.
Clearly, the U.S. needs a new, "kinder and gentler" approach to the Arctic. But with only weeks left in his administration, President Bush should do the honorable thing, and hand this important task off to President-elect Obama and his incoming team.
Rick Steiner is a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He was the university's first marine adviser in the Arctic in the 1980s.