President Barack Obama has pinned a chunk of his legacy to policies in the Arctic and circumpolar north. He made an historic trip to Alaska last year. Initiatives to address Arctic climate change and environmental concerns, rolled out while the United States chairs the eight-nation Arctic Council, have been high priorities for the outgoing president.
Now President-elect Donald Trump, a climate-change skeptic, is ready and able to reverse all of Obama’s Arctic policies.
Trump is on record as declaring global climate change to be a hoax, in defiance of a signature Obama policy and a central theme of his high-profile Alaska visit. Already, his transition team is heavy with fossil-fuel supporters who downplay climate-change risks or insist they do not exist, figures like Myron Ebell, who heads an organization called the Cooler Heads Coalition, devoted to fighting climate-related regulations.
Gone could be Obama-bestowed protections like the no-oil-leasing rule established for the environmentally sensitive Hanna Shoal area in the Chukchi Sea, an important foraging site for walruses; new Arctic-specific standards for oil activities and climate-based practices, some of them shared with Nordic governments; and protections for an area near vast Teshekpuk Lake, the largest freshwater lake on the North Slope and a globally important site for migrating waterfowl. The lake is in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
To Alaska environmentalist Rick Steiner, a former marine biology professor who now heads the group Oasis Earth, the election was a disaster for climate policy and Arctic protection.
The world is poised “to fix this climate issue before it gets out of hand. Yet now, with the election of Donald Trump, a man who believes climate change is all a hoax, that’s going to be a challenge, a huge, huge challenge,” Steiner said.
But some of the officials involved in Arctic policy are withholding judgment for now on Trump and his impact to the far north.
Jim Stotts, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council of Alaska, said in an email he wants to “let the dust settle” before making any major pronouncements about the election’s effects.
“Personally, I’m not happy with the results. However, I feel I shouldn’t speculate about the future without some facts and specifics. I think most everyone is running on raw emotion at this time, I’m not one of those. Time will tell which way U.S. Arctic policy turns or not. I have a feeling we will know soon enough,” he said in the email.
Fran Ulmer, the former Alaska lieutenant governor who now chairs the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and is part of the U.S. State Department’s Arctic team, said she is hoping for stability.
Momentum in Arctic policy has already developed “and should continue regardless of party affiliation … because it is based on national stewardship, national security, national and regional interests as defined by communities, states, agencies, scientists, businesses,” she said in an email. “Whether it’s a new icebreaker or a safe traffic pattern for the Bering Strait, these things are clearly needed and will probably continue on course.”
She cited the National Arctic Strategy and Implementation plan, issued by the White House in 2014, as a “good foundation on which the next administration can continue the work.” She also cited the five-year research plan issued by the Interagency Arctic Policy Research Committee as a guide for future U.S. Arctic work.
At the Arctic Council, most U.S.-led work will be completed by next spring, when U.S. chairmanship of the council reaches the end of its term, Ulmer said. “I don’t think any of that will change under the next president,” she said.
Trump will be president when the Arctic Council holds its U.S.-led ministerial in Fairbanks in May. At that meeting, leadership of the organization will be transferred to Finland.
Retired Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney, chief executive of a bipartisan policy organization that studies climate change and other international issues, also took a cautious view in a Wednesday teleconference held by the World Resources Institute.
Cheney said he hopes the Trump administration will view climate change and the Arctic as important to national security.
It is well understood that climate change has contributed to disastrous weather, he said. “We know that climate change is contributing to instability all over the world,” he said in the news conference. “The senior military folks understand the impact of climate change. The hard part of that, of course, is getting the message across to the next administration.”
As for the Arctic specifically, Cheney said he hopes the Trump administration will consider the region — and its protection — important to national security.
“I’m not going to speculate on the Trump policy in the Arctic. But there are definite security concerns there,” Cheney said.
The nation is “woefully short on icebreakers,” he said. And at the State Department, “there’s a wary eye cast on Russia,” he said.
Cheney is a member of the department’s International Security Advisory Board, which in September issued an Arctic policy report that he said he hopes will be used as a guide by the incoming administration.
Steiner, however, is more concerned about the post-Obama era. He said he hopes the current president will use his remaining time in office to protect Arctic and near-Arctic waters by invoking powers under the Antiquities Act to designate protected monuments in vulnerable marine zones.
“He needs to get very serious very quickly about using this Antiquities Act designation,” Steiner said.
He and some of his colleagues have been pushing since the start of the Obama administration to get monument status for marine areas in the Arctic — including the Hanna Shoal — along with the Bering Strait, Aleutians and Bristol Bay.
Though the president has removed the latter from the Interior Department’s oil and gas leasing program, “I’m not confident and I don’t think anyone should be confident” that the decision will not be reversed, he said. “If you do an Antiquities Act monument designation, it would be about as secure as one can be.”
Obama would not be the first president to make late-term monument designations, Steiner noted.
During his last month in the White House, George W. Bush used the Antiquities Act to create new marine monuments in the South Pacific.