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Expert View: How the Outcome of the U.S. Election Affects the Arctic

On early Wednesday morning, Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States, logging a victory against Hillary Clinton that surprised many. What will it mean for the Arctic?

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Aptopix 2016 election trump
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump cheer as they watch election returns during an election night rally, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in New York. AP/Evan Vucci

The U.S. president-elect did not say much about the Arctic during his campaign, so we turned to the experts for their views on the implications of a Donald Trump presidency for the Arctic, on everything from climate change to oil and gas development to geopolitics. We will continue to add their reactions as they weigh in on the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election.

Climate Change and the Arctic

It’s not clear what Trump’s victory means for the global fight to curb climate change. Trump has called climate change a “hoax” and promised to withdraw the U.S., the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, from the Paris climate agreement.

At a State Department briefing last week, John Morton, the director for energy and climate change for the National Security Council, recognized that the candidates had different views on climate. He said the election outcome could affect the speed with which the U.S. acts to limit emissions. “What we have seen in recent months and in recent years is a recognized inevitability of a transition to a low-carbon economy,” he said. “The question is who will lead.”

Whitney Lackenbauer (St. Jerome’s University at the University of Waterloo): “[Donald Trump] said he will ‘cancel all wasteful climate change spending’ including support to the United Nations Climate Fund and to research and development initiatives dedicated to clean energy solutions.”

David M. Slayton (Hoover Institution, Stanford University): “Let’s remember, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was developed under a Republican administration. I believe we will continue to see a strong focus on environmental protection efforts in the U.S., I believe the focus on environmental stewardship and ‘smart’ resource development will continue.”

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber (Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research): “Science cannot expect any positive climate action from him. The world has now to move forward without the U.S. on the road toward climate-risk mitigation and clean-technology innovation.”

William Moomaw (Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy): “‘President Trump’ will undermine most attempts to address climate change, and the U.S. will become a drag on the future development of the Paris Accord. This has devastating consequences for the Arctic.”

U.S. Arctic Oil Development

In 2015, the Obama administration canceled the auctions for drilling rights in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas for two years. In June, Respol, a Spanish oil company holding drilling leases in the Chukchi, abandoned 55 of them with the intention of giving up the rest next year.

Other oil companies, including Shell, ConocoPhillips, Eni and Iona Energy, have also dropped their Arctic drilling plans. In a statement, Shell said that its decision was partly due to “the unpredictable federal regulatory environment” for offshore drilling. In July, the U.S. Department of the Interior finalized the first-ever Arctic-specific regulations for exploratory drilling in U.S. Arctic waters.

Marc Lanteigne (Norwegian Institute of International Affairs): “There is a strong possibility that the moratorium on Alaskan oil drilling announced in October last year will be overturned, which may please some in the state, but worry environmentalists.”

Slayton: “I believe we will see some serious steps toward these efforts versus just talk, building out both capacity and capability to meet the requirements of the multinational agreement on spill response in the Arctic – Russia is my primary concern here, not the U.S.

Cathleen Kelly (Center for American Progress): “The Trump administration must also expand collaboration with Arctic nations and other countries to better understand and manage the security and economic risks of Arctic climate change. By driving more Arctic collaboration, a Trump administration can contradict and discourage irresponsible resource jockeying in the region.”

John Higginbotham (Carleton University and the Centre for International Governance Innovation): “Trump will certainly be interested in less constrained economic development. He would find the idea of continental energy security attractive, including possible joint energy and port developments in the Beaufort Sea. His own environment policies will be reflected … through the effect of reversing Obama’s domestic green policies, for example, recent EPA measures on greenhouse gases and interior oil and gas development in Alaska, including off-shore.”

The Arctic Council

Nils Andreassen (Institute of the North): “The legacy work and fundamental underpinning of the Arctic Council does not change with a transition in domestic leadership. In fact, the Arctic Council is a robust mechanism for addressing Arctic issues and it is extremely capable of working to inform and cooperate with an incoming U.S. administration.”

Lassi Heininen (University of Lapland): “There are only four months left in the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council after Trump takes office. Who will be the secretary of state? That person will attend the ministerial meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska, next year. I don’t expect it will call into question the agreement on scientific cooperation.”

Moomaw: “The U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council will end in disarray under a Trump presidency. He has no knowledge and no interest in the Arctic. None of the initiatives will be implemented. He may not even address the Arctic as it is not on his agenda.”

Rob Huebert (University of Calgary): “It is highly probable that the United States will return to a policy framework that is much more oriented toward unilateralism rather than multilateralism. This means that the support of the Arctic Council that has been one of the major elements of the Obama Administration will decrease.”

Kelly: “When Donald Trump takes office, his administration will take the reins of the U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council – currently held by Secretary of State John Kerry. At the final ministerial meeting of the U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship in May 2017, Arctic leaders must adopt an ambitious regional target to curb black carbon pollution.”

Rafe Pomerance (Arctic21): “The unraveling of the Arctic continues and the U.S. will have to face the implications at the Fairbanks ministerial meeting in May.”

Higginbotham: “We should not assume that he will just fit in and adjust to the traditions of the Arctic Council, including its heavy environmental emphasis and diffuse Indigenous and observer roles. He might prefer a hard Arctic Five configuration or ad hoc meetings.”

Jessica M. Shadian (University of Akureyri, Iceland, and University of Toronto): “Hope for U.S. engagement in Arctic affairs resides in the work of those legislators already deeply involved in Arctic matters. Most prominent are senators Lisa Murkowski and Angus King. Together and through the Arctic Caucus they will make sure that they work with the incoming administration to promote the ongoing work that they and Alaska are doing on Arctic issues.”

Arctic Security and International Relations

The circumpolar Arctic has had a high level of geopolitical stability in recent years despite tensions between Arctic nations in other regions, notably Ukraine and Syria. While some security experts have expressed support for a discussion forum on Arctic security policy, others have said the risk of confrontation in the Arctic remains low.

Richard Clifford (Polar Research and Policy Initiative): “Trump has said little specifically regarding Arctic challenges and, thus, has not addressed questions regarding Arctic security … recent statements about President Putin of Russia suggest that a greater amount of cooperation across the board could occur … Examining the future of Arctic relations under Trump would thus rest on an interpretation of his ability to conduct statecraft in an informed and consistent manner.”

Lackenbauer: “[It] could portend an end to what [Vladimir Putin] describes as a ‘crisis in Russian-American relations’ … On the other hand, uncertainty about the future of the U.S. under Trump, coupled with the president-elect’s worrisome comments indicating a conditional approach to defending its Nato allies, could prompt the Russian leader to take even more aggressive international action to build leverage that he can use in negotiating a new relationship with the U.S.

Slayton: “We will continue to improve to be sure, to include engaging Russia more directly. I believe we need to re-establish a military-to-military relationship with Russia, along with other ‘Tier 1’ government contact. The U.S. and Russia have been, and will continue to be, the nations that ensure a safe, secure and prosperous Arctic for all.”

Lanteigne: “One difficult question is whether the Arctic may be affected by a potential isolationist character of the new administration’s foreign policy.”

Heininen: “The big question is what it means for security. I don’t believe Finland will be left alone with Russia [without U.S. support]. Trump may try to reset relations between the U.S. and Russia. There have been negotiations between the U.S. and Russia – and there have been failures – but they keep negotiating. This is how you should do things in these turbulent times. Don’t give up. Be patient and continue.”

Shadian: “There is a very good chance we are going to see tighter relations between the U.S. and Russia and there could very well be less U.S. investment in NATO. This could potentially alter the global balance significantly. In terms of the Arctic, it would offset talks about U.S./Russian conflicts elsewhere entering into Arctic politics but the larger geopolitical changes could very well consume all politics in the Arctic.”

The views expressed in this article may not reflect those of Arctic Deeply. 

This version expands on an earlier version of the story.

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