New US Arctic strategies ignore climate risks in focus on geopolitics, experts say

Recent strategies from the U.S. Navy and Department of Homeland Security highlight great power competition over environmental hazards.

By Melody Schreiber - January 20, 2021
The guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG 60) navigates through an ice field in Arctic waters north of Iceland on June 12, 2007. (Lt. J.G. Ryan Birkelbach / U.S. Navy)

In the final days of the Trump administration, two U.S. agencies released new Arctic security strategies. But the plans focus overwhelmingly on geopolitics, largely overlooking key climate challenges, experts say.

The U.S. Navy released its latest “strategic blueprint” on Jan. 5, the third Arctic strategic document from the maritime service since 2014. The ostensible reason for the report, and the source of its title, are the unprecedented environmental changes occurring in the Arctic.

The Department of Homeland Security, which includes the U.S. Coast Guard, followed with their Arctic plans on Jan. 11.

Both agencies outline growing international threats in the Arctic, particularly from Russia and China, and call for increased presence and capabilities in the North. The strategies come after several military exercises in the Arctic that some say were limited by intelligence and surveillance.

The reports join a growing collection of Arctic strategies, including recent documents from the U.S. Air Force in 2020 and the Coast Guard in 2019, as well as a planned strategy from the U.S. Army likely to be released in February.

The new strategies allude to physical changes to the environment that have opened the region to more traffic. But they avoid outright mentions of climate change, which is driving these and other changes in the region.

It’s a major misstep in a place where rapid and ongoing environmental change are among the most important factors for security, experts say. Without naming the specific overarching problems, which continue to grow in scope, it will be difficult to respond to the complex risks.

Dr. Cameron Carlson, the founding director of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management program at University of Alaska Fairbanks, told ArcticToday that the Arctic-specific strategies from DHS and other agencies were “way overdue” given the changing environment.

But omitting climate change in these reports overlooks “some of the real concerns of what’s happening in the Arctic.”

“If we’re going into the Arctic, we have to understand that these changes will also impact the infrastructure that we have here and our ability to operate” in the region, he said.

Thawing permafrost and eroding coastlines, for example, could undermine roads, ports, defense infrastructure and military bases.

Understanding climate risks and challenges would help guide long-term decisions and investments, Carlson said. “We’re going to need to be more creative in terms of how we develop solutions that are going to have some modicum of resilience — where we can invest in something knowing that we’re not going to completely lose it.”

The changes already visible in the Arctic will continue to magnify as the climate warms. That means plans based only upon changes witnessed so far will be out of date in a few years, Carlson said.

Sherri Goodman, former U.S. deputy undersecretary of defense and senior fellow at the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute, pointed out the irony of releasing the Navy’s strategy at the Naval War College’s recent climate change conference when the report fails to mention climate change.

“The risk of denying or avoiding reference to climate change in a U.S. strategy document is that we will not plan properly for a major threat — climate change — that is shaping all we do in the Arctic and beyond,” Goodman told ArcticToday.

She compared this lack of foresight to past intelligence failures leading to the Pearl Harbor bombing, the 9/11 attacks, and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Beyond climate change, the reports fall short of capturing the operational complexities of the Arctic environment.

The Navy strategy, for instance, acknowledges the importance of engaging in the north, but it reverts to the military stance it takes in any other region, Timothy Choi, a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies, told ArcticToday.

“The document starts out well,” Choi said, by acknowledging unusual changes in the Arctic prompting new approaches from the Navy. “But it soon forgets them.” The document instead focuses on the importance of freedom of navigation, deterring aggression, enhanced partnerships, and defending the homeland — “all things that apply nearly to any ocean in the world.”

“There’s very little that’s actually new or different in the blueprint,” Choi said.

Errors and gaffes — such as referring to China as an “Arctic state“ in the press release — led some to question how thoroughly the strategy was reviewed by partners, and others to conclude the Navy had “checked out“ with this report.

The increased relevance of the Arctic to U.S. security agencies could signal a shift in how the U.S. views its status, and responsibilities, as an Arctic nation, Carlson said. “We have seen much more interest within the Arctic within the past year to year and a half.”

As national security strategies are released, some within days of each other, there are opportunities for agencies to collaborate, identify similar challenges and work on addressing them together, Carlson said.

“I’m hoping that as time goes on, because we’re now starting to reach that culminating point where so many of these strategies are being developed, almost simultaneously, that there is some degree of synchronization between them in terms of how they look at the air, land, sea and water space,” he said.

But there are geopolitical risks to U.S. security agencies’ increasingly aggressive stance in the Arctic, Dr. Rasmus Bertelsen, professor of northern studies at UiT The Arctic University of Norway, told ArcticToday.

“This document is clearly about the United States trying to continue to regain dominance. And that will, of course, provoke very strong push back from Russia, from China,” he said.

Strategies like these could have both economic and military fallout, he said.

“Such a situation where you have the world’s two biggest economies, the United States and China, pushing against each other like that has to be handled very carefully.”

“I don’t see any understanding that the Arctic is a question of survival for Russia,” Bertelsen said. “Russia will go very far to protect its Arctic. And if the United States insists on challenging those Russian Arctic interests — well, that’s a clear-cut security dilemma.”