During my nearly 40 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, the Arctic was a common thread. My first tour serving in a cutter homeported at Adak, Alaska, gave me an intimate knowledge of navigating
dangerous Arctic waters, of the isolation of living on a distant Aleutian Island, the cooperative nature of our relationship with Russia along Alaska’s western maritime boundary, and the difficulties of carrying out Arctic search-and-rescue missions. But while I came to understand the importance of the Arctic through first-hand experiences, I asked myself, what will compel our citizens to care about the region?
During my two years as U.S. Special Representative to the Arctic, I had the opportunity to meet and speak with people living and laboring in the region and those working hard on its behalf. Whether a lifelong Arctic resident, a national Arctic policy maker, a knowledgeable academician, or one of our U.S. Arctic Youth Ambassadors, each genuinely conveyed to me the importance of the Arctic region to our nation. Time and again, they expressed concerns about the impact of climate change upon it.
Across Alaska, the impacts of climate change are plainly evident and undeniable: coastal erosion is causing homes to fall into the sea or other waterways; thawing permafrost is affecting infrastructure; and unstable ice and changing migration patterns are preventing people from obtaining the food sources they have relied upon for tens of thousands of years.
Hearing Gwich’in community members share how climate change has impacted the safety and security of Fort Yukon’s villagers brings home the real impact of our changing environment. They tell of how the once-trusted trails that cross the frozen ice of the Yukon River, which they often take to reach friends, family, and hunting and gathering grounds, are now unpredictable, and more people are falling through the ice and drowning. In Barrow, the underground utility tunnel that supplies electricity to the entire city is threatened by coastal erosion. If the tunnel floods—and it will—the community will be without critical infrastructure that is taken for granted by most in the United States.
As Secretary of State John F. Kerry said when he visited Alaska in 2015, “climate is not a distant threat for our children and their children to worry about. It is now. It is happening now. The Arctic has never been an easy place to survive . . . but global climate change now threatens life in this region in a way that it hasn’t been threatened for . . . 10,000 years.”
Over the past two years, the United States has shown great leadership in the Arctic. We have initiated vigorous local-, state-, and national-level conversations about the unique challenges and opportunities in the Arctic. This enhanced dialogue is revealing innovative paths forward and identifying areas that still require greater attention and understanding. The U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council has proven a strong catalyst and focused the attention of our federal agencies, embassies, the private sector, and others on America’s Arctic like never before. The Arctic Council itself—which at its 20-year mark is a brighter beacon than ever for international cooperation and policy making in the region—has been strengthened through our chairmanship. President Barack Obama established the Arctic Executive Steering Committee to ensure that our federal efforts in the region are more efficient, effective, and coordinated. The Arctic Coast Guard Forum and operational field exercises have better prepared our first responders for maritime search-and-rescue and oil-pollution response.
The willingness of stakeholders to engage in a constructive dialogue has helped us to create unparalleled momentum around, action on, and commitment to Arctic issues in this country. Every meeting, public engagement, and media program were opportunities to learn from, draw attention to, and gain consensus on how to move forward. From our most recent Arctic Council gathering in Portland, Maine—one of the first official Council meetings held outside the Arctic—to the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement, and Resilience, which brought a sitting U.S. President to the U.S. Arctic for the first time, our country is experiencing an unprecedented level of engagement and exchange on Arctic issues.
In his January 1961 farewell speech to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, not long before he assumed the presidency, John F. Kennedy reminded us of Pericles’ words to the Athenians, “We do not imitate—for we are a model to others.” Kennedy continued, stating, “Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us.”
The United States must continue demonstrating great leadership in the Arctic because the world’s eyes are upon us as never before. The urgency of climate change and the resultant increase in human activity make our intentions and actions in the region matter more than ever. Now is our opportunity to show the world that we as a nation have the tenacity, capabilities, and determination to meet the economic, security, and environmental needs of the region and its peoples. The work we have started together on the Arctic and the domestic and international commitments we have made to this vital region must continue.
Admiral Papp was the U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic from 20 July 2014 to 30 December 2016. Prior to his appointment, Admiral Papp served as the 24th Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. On 6 January 2017, he became President of Washington Operations for Eastern Shipping Group, Inc.