When the U.S. Navy ended its climate task force, Arctic issues were sidelined too, experts say

“If you don't know who's in charge, then the answer is probably nobody's in charge.”

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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)

Earlier this year, the U.S. Navy quietly stood down Task Force Climate Change, the decade-long mission to understand and plan for rapid environmental changes around the globe.

But that task force also played a large role in forming the Navy’s Arctic outlook, and it’s unclear now who in the Navy is now responsible for monitoring the rapidly changing Arctic.

Last week, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked former secretary of defense Gen. James Mattis about the end of the task force. He declined to comment on the group specifically, citing a lack of details, but he did warn against ignoring climate change — especially changing conditions in the Arctic.

“We are dealing with open waters that used to be ice fields,” he said, and he called climate change a national security issue. “Why wouldn’t we take out an insurance policy and do prudent steps to make certain the generation that’s coming up is not going to be caught flat-footed by this?”

While the task force’s focus was on climate change around the world, the Arctic drew outsized scrutiny because of the rapid changes opening up a “new ocean,” as some have called it.

In May, Adm. John Richardson, then the chief of naval operations, said that climate change was creating new potential security threats and hazards to military infrastructure. “The Arctic is a very dynamic situation in response to this climate change,” he said at a maritime event. But Richardson retired at the end of last month, and it’s unclear where his successor, Adm. Michael Gilday, stands on these issues.

Retired Rear Adm. Jon White, who led the task force from 2012 to 2015, told ArcticToday that the task force was “the main catalyst” for keeping the Navy’s senior leadership informed and attentive to the region.

The uncertainty around who is now monitoring the region will likely have implications for the Navy’s future Arctic activities and strategies.

“Who’s in charge of planning for the Arctic?” asked White, who is now CEO and president of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. “Who’s in charge of informing the chief of naval operations what’s happening with climate change?”

Only a few years ago, the Navy was taking a leadership role in trying to understand how climate change would affect strategy, operations and infrastructure, White said, and how it “would change the balance of global powers in the future.”

But standing down this task force without creating another Arctic monitoring body is an indication that the Navy has lost focus on the region.

“I don’t see a lot of that going on today,” White said. “So I do have concerns.”

The task force, which began in 2009, ended in March without public reports on how the mission was achieved and who is responsible for next steps — which is unusual for the end of such an undertaking, White said. “It was just sort of, ‘Eh, I think we’re done, bye.’”

The final document issued by the task force was the Navy’s strategic outlook on the Arctic, quietly released in January.

Sherri Goodman, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center and the former U.S. deputy undersecretary of defense, said strategies like these can be important for understanding how the military will operate in a world where weather, climate and other natural systems are much less predictable than they’ve been in the past.

“You want to know what your drivers are, what the forces shaping your strategy or plans to do operations,” she told ArcticToday. But at this point, she said, it’s unclear how and to what extent the Navy is planning for changes — especially in the North.

“The Navy had already decided quite a while ago to give much lower priority to these matters,” Goodman said. But the next chief of naval operations has an opportunity to lead on these issues, she added.

“The less awareness we show of how climate change is affecting Arctic security, the less likely we are to be prepared for those changes when they happen,” Goodman said. “And we ignore it at our peril.”

Of course, task forces don’t usually last forever — usually a few years or even months. They end when the mission has been completed, or when a new task force is created and includes previous work.

A Navy spokesperson told E&E News that climate change has been folded into “existing business processes,” although it’s not clear how or when the task force’s unfinished missions were integrated into existing programs or offices, and who is now responsible for monitoring changes. The Navy did not respond to ArcticToday’s inquiries by the time of publication.

But White argued that having a point person is key for managing a topic like climate change — and a region like the Arctic.

“If you don’t know who’s in charge, then the answer is probably nobody’s in charge,” he said.

White was quick to emphasize the ongoing work of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, which continues to examine the effects of environmental change, including in the Arctic. And the Navy has conducted subsurface and surface operations in the Arctic — including potential plans for an Arctic operation this year.

But the Navy has no ice-capable ships, which limits its operational abilities in the North. That has “always been a concern,” White said. When he was in charge of the task force, he said, they tried to include building ice-capable vessels in their long-range and strategic planning — including in the Navy’s Arctic Roadmap in 2014. That document was supplanted by the strategic outlook released this year, which doesn’t specifically mention upgrading the Navy’s capabilities in the Arctic.

“It seems to largely have gone nowhere,” White said.