US calls for ‘Sputnik’ style drive to save Arctic

The US will make climate change its top priority as chair of the Arctic Council, says US Arctic envoy

Pic: U.S. Geological Survey/Flickr

Pic: U.S. Geological Survey/Flickr

By Sophie Yeo

Climate change will be the top priority for the US when it takes over chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2015, says the US special representative to the Arctic.

Speaking today in Washington, Admiral Robert Papp Jr said that the US would pursue Arctic conservation with the same drive as John F. Kennedy’s mission to put a man on the moon following the Soviet launch of Sputnik.

“Rather than a national imperative, what we have is a moral imperative. We have an obligation to protect this area of our earth for future progress, for the people that live there,” he said.

Papp, a retired admiral, was appointed by US secretary of state John Kerry as the first US Arctic envoy in July this year. The US is an Arctic state by dint of Alaska, whose northern regions sit within the Arctic Circle.

The US will take over chairmanship of the Arctic Council from Canada next year, and hold the position till 2017.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as other parts of the globe, causing glaciers and sea ice to melt. Scientists predict that the Arctic faces the prospect of an ice-free summer by mid-century.


Papp said that the US would elevate ocean conservation, climate resilience and the lives of Arctic people to the top of the agenda during the chairmanship, recognising the impacts that human activity has had on the delicate region.

This will include specific initiatives such as providing more renewable energy to Arctic people in order to reduce their dependence on diesel generators, a source of black carbon which speeds up the melting of the Arctic ice.

Telecommunications will also be a priority, he said, as this will allow improved sharing of adaptation tools, as communities face coastal erosion and freshwater shortages.


He added that economic activity in the Arctic – the opportunities for which are growing as melting ice opens new shipping routes and oil resources – must be “sustainable” and not exacerbate the problems that climate change is causing.

“A really great nation will ensure the environmental protection of the sea,” said Papp, adding that the pristine Arctic Ocean is not excluded from problems faced in other areas of the world, recently addressed by Secretary Kerry at the Our Oceans Conference 2014, including marine pollution.

National imperative

While Alaska is the only state directly affected by the impacts of melting ice in the Arctic, Papp said that it was also a “national imperative” for the other 49 states.

“Unlike in Las Vegas, what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic,” he said, adding that activities outside the Arctic similarly have an impact on the high north.

He said that the US’s full agenda would be laid out during a meeting next month, but that on the whole the US plans to make the Council “more forward leaning” with a push towards implementing solutions.

The intense focus on climate change marks a departure from the approach of the Canadian chairmanship, which put resource development as its top priority for its two-year chairmanship.

The US expects all Arctic states to continue to cooperate in the region, including Russia, said Papp. The relationship between the White House and the Kremlin has deteriorated over the past year due to the crisis in Ukraine.

“In approaching the Arctic, we approach uncertain and stormy seas, but working together we can accomplish great things,” he said.

Read more on: Arctic | Climate politics | US |