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Mark Brzezinski: U.S. Arctic Policies and Priorities

The White House established the Arctic Executive Steering Committee last year to help guide federal policy and coordinate activities among governments, researchers and nonprofits. Arctic Deeply talks to its executive director Mark Brzezinski about U.S. priorities and policies in the Arctic.

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 10 minutes
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One year ago, President Barack Obama issued an executive order to create the Arctic Executive Steering Committee. The move was an attempt to coordinate the many agencies in charge of Arctic programs.

“Over the past 60 years, climate change has caused the Alaskan Arctic to warm twice as rapidly as the rest of the United States,” Obama said in the order, “and will continue to transform the Arctic as its consequences grow more severe.”

A few months later, the U.S. took over the leadership of the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental forum of Arctic states and observer nations that focuses on environmental protection and sustainable development.

In August 2015, Mark Brzezinski was appointed to serve as the executive director of the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, which oversees the implementation of the National Strategy for the Arctic Region. He had previously served as U.S. ambassador to Sweden from 2011 to 2015, working closely with the Swedish government during its chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2011–13).

Brzezinski agreed to answer some questions by email about U.S. priorities in the Arctic.

Arctic Deeply: The Arctic is not a priority for many Americans. Why should it be important to Americans?

Mark Brzezinski: America is an Arctic nation, thanks to the great State of Alaska and the people who live there. The Arctic is part of our national identity and pride, culture and heritage, and national opportunity. In this way, Americans are an Arctic people and Arctic issues are American issues.

The impacts of climate change in the Arctic present simultaneously a strategic challenge and a human challenge. As President Obama stated following his trip to the Arctic in September, “the looming crisis in the Alaskan Arctic is a tangible preview of the looming crisis of the global condition.” A direct interaction exists between what happens in the Arctic and what happens in the rest of the world. For example, temperature increases and loss of sea ice in the Arctic are altering weather patterns across the globe, particularly at mid-latitudes in North America, Europe and Asia.

The Arctic Executive Steering Committee (AESC), operating out of the White House, along with the Arctic Council, under the U.S. chairmanship, are focusing on the health and welfare of Arctic communities, in addition to Arctic ocean safety, security, stewardship and the impacts of climate change. We are proactively listening to and learning from the people of the Arctic about their concerns and needs, and working every day on their behalf.

Arctic Deeply: What kind of work is the Arctic Executive Steering Committee doing?

Mark Brzezinski: We are looking for opportunities to solve problems. Take for example the challenge of clean drinking water in the Arctic. For some communities in rural Alaska, access to clean drinking water is a day-to-day struggle due to lack of infrastructure. To help address this issue, in October 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provided a construction grant (with matching funds from the State of Alaska) to support the construction of drinking water and wastewater systems in nine Alaska Native villages to help provide access to drinking water. Access to reliable, affordable energy is also a challenge for many communities in the Arctic. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced the availability of $10 million in funding for USDA High Energy Cost Grants to Alaskan communities to address this energy challenge.

These are examples of the work the AESC is undertaking during its first year. With the participation of 25 federal agencies in the AESC, the AESC has become the central hub for coordinating federal activities in the Arctic. The AESC is positioned to continue this important work in its second year and beyond, in continued consultation with state, local and Tribal entities in America’s Arctic.

Arctic Deeply: What are the U.S. priorities for Arctic policy and why?

Mark Brzezinski: The Arctic Region has enormous and growing economic, environmental and national security implications for the United States. The U.S. government’s “National Strategy for the Arctic Region” identifies our strategic priorities for the Arctic, and those priorities inform our nation’s policies across the range of challenges and opportunities. Our national priorities in the Arctic include national security, sovereign rights and responsibilities, maritime safety, environmental stewardship, scientific research, management of natural resources and preservation of indigenous culture and language. A central principle informing our work is: While the Arctic provides a preview of future impacts of climate change, it also offers an opening for a collective and effective response.

President Obama initiated the strategy to position the United States to meet the challenges and opportunities arising in the Arctic. In understanding our strategy, it’s important to know that it is based on three “lines of effort” that guide policymaking.

The first line of effort is to advance U.S. security interests. Our highest priority for the United States remains protecting the American people, our sovereign territory and rights, and our natural resources.

The second line of effort is the pursuit of responsible Arctic region stewardship. This includes environmental protection and conservation, resource development, economic opportunities, reliable and affordable energy for Alaska and the preservation of indigenous people’s culture. As an Arctic nation, the United States will continue to protect the Arctic environment and conserve its resources. We are conducting additional charting of the Arctic region to enhance marine transportation safety and enhancing our capabilities to prevent, contain and respond to hazardous material spills and conduct search and rescue missions. We are establishing and implementing an integrated Arctic management framework and employing scientific research and traditional knowledge to increase our understanding of the Arctic and the changes taking place.

Third, we are continuing to play a leadership role in the Arctic while striving to strengthen international cooperation on the future of the region. The Arctic presents a historically unique challenge, and a collective response to these challenges is the most effective response. The GLACIER Summit in Alaska in August 2015, attended by representatives from 21 nations, created a platform to generate a collective understanding of the Arctic’s unique role in global climate change and the actions needed to address the impacts of climate change in the Arctic. Another example of enhanced international cooperation is the creation of a new Arctic Coast Guard Forum in October 2015. The Coast Guards of eight Arctic nations will leverage collective efforts to foster safe, secure and environmentally responsible maritime activity in the Arctic. We will strengthen our international partnerships bilaterally and through existing multilateral fora, including the Arctic Council, which we now chair, and pursue new arrangements for cooperating on environmental and other issues of mutual interest or concern.

Arctic Deeply: The U.S. is not a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. How does this affect the activities and actions of the U.S. in the Arctic?

Mark Brzezinski: Significant national security, economic and other interests of the United States as both a coastal state and a major maritime power are advanced and secured by becoming a party to the Law of the Sea Convention. The convention remains a key piece of unfinished treaty business for the United States. We need to become a party in order to protect fully our navigational rights and freedoms, economic rights and other ocean-related interests. Past administrations, both Republican and Democrat, the civilian and military leadership of the U.S. Armed Forces and leading industry and non-governmental organizations have all strongly supported the United States joining the convention.

Each of the five states surrounding the Arctic Ocean – Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark (via Greenland) and the United States – has an extended continental shelf. The Arctic coastal states are proceeding in an orderly manner to define their continental shelf limits according to the provisions set out in the Law of the Sea Convention. While the United States has a significant amount of extended continental shelf in the Arctic, as a non-party to the Law of the Sea Convention, the United States is at a disadvantage relative to the other Arctic Ocean coastal states.

Becoming a party to the Law of the Sea Convention would help the United States maximize international recognition and legal certainty regarding the outer limits of the U.S. continental shelf, including off the coast of Alaska, where our extended continental shelf is likely to extend out to more than 600 nautical miles. U.S. accession is a matter of geostrategic importance in the Arctic (where all other Arctic nations, including Russia, are parties). The administration remains committed to acceding to the Law of the Sea Convention as a high priority.

Arctic Deeply: How can Arctic science, such as the monitoring of Arctic change and wildlife populations, be improved and where does the U.S. fit into improving the quality and/or quantity of Arctic research and data?

Mark Brzezinski: The time is right to accelerate international cooperation in Arctic research, and a huge amount of scientific cooperation is needed to address the challenges in a rapidly changing Arctic. There is also ample opportunity today to boost scientific cooperation with our international partners in the Arctic, with whom we share a mutual interest and common purpose. International cooperation will enhance our ability to monitor and understand phenomena such as greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost, the impacts of sea ice reduction on marine ecosystems and long-distance weather links between the Arctic and mid-latitudes.

The August 2015 GLACIER Conference created a platform as a means of engaging both Arctic nations and other nations with interests in the Arctic in enhanced scientific collaboration. The greater our scientific understanding of fundamental Arctic ecosystems and changes occurring in the Arctic – the better we are able to forecast the impacts of climate change before they occur – the better suited we will be to adapt to new realities.

A good model is seen in the “Distributed Biological Observatory,” (DBO) a U.S. partnership with Japan, South Korea, Korea, Canada and Russia. This project exemplifies international collaboration in Arctic observing in the Pacific Arctic region by collecting and sharing sampling from various national and international research platforms to demonstrate the value added of an international shared-data approach. DBO is organized by the Pacific Arctic Group (PAG), a subgroup of the International Arctic Science Committee, and receives funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Another example is NOAA’s Arctic Report Card, an annual publication that synthesizes a range of environmental observations throughout the Arctic. It highlights continued physical and biological changes occurring in the Arctic environmental system. These changes include the minimum sea ice extent and impacts of sea ice retreat on ice-associated marine mammals such as walruses.

This is an opportune time for U.S. leadership to strengthen scientific partnerships with other countries to deepen our understanding of the impact of changing temperatures and retreating sea ice on Arctic wildlife populations. We are also exploring ways to develop and implement a more integrated Arctic observing system and enhance international data sharing to better understand Arctic system dynamics and the impacts that changes in the Arctic are having on the rest of the globe.

Arctic Deeply: How has your experience in the Arctic shaped your view on the Arctic and the potential impact of U.S. policy at the international level?

Mark Brzezinski: I come to the Arctic issue as someone passionate about the environment from a very young age. I was raised in a family where the outdoors was a central part of growing up. I grew up in Northern Virginia, and I remember winters in the 1970s when the Potomac froze more than it does now. I loved to go to the Chesapeake Bay as a kid. Today, climate change is contributing to increasing numbers of harmful algae blooms in coastal waters, and that affects the coastal fishing industry.

I first went to Alaska after college, when I traveled through parts of the state with my brother, through Glacier Bay National Park, visiting Mendenhall Glacier among many other sites. I was awestruck by their natural beauty but also by human society that exists in harmony and balance with these delicate ecosystems.

That’s the passion I brought to the U.S. embassy in Sweden when I was posted there by President Obama as U.S. ambassador. I was in Sweden for almost four years, and spent a significant amount of time above the Arctic Circle visiting with the Saami people, listening to how their society and culture may disappear because of the impacts of climate change.

During my time in Stockholm, which included the period of Sweden’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council, I worked closely with the Swedish government on a wide range of Arctic issues. Under my leadership, the U.S. embassy developed new partnerships with governments and diplomats, businesses and the environmental and NGO communities, with emphasis on how developments in the Arctic are linked to what is happening in the rest of the world. In so doing, I saw the capacity of the U.S. government to elevate awareness and mobilize national and international action to address a vital issue like the Arctic.

In my first month in my new position as executive director of the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, I was able to participate in President Obama’s historic visit to Alaska, where the president made history by becoming the first U.S. president to put his two feet in the Arctic. The president was clear that his visit was the beginning, not the culmination, of high-level U.S. government engagement on the Arctic. The president’s visit to Alaska’s remote Arctic reflects his deep commitment to pursue a responsible way forward. In his speech at the GLACIER Conference in Alaska, Obama said, “Remind yourself that there will come a time when your grandkids – and mine, if I’m lucky enough to have some – they’ll want to see this. They’ll want to experience it, just as we’ve gotten to do in our own lives. They deserve to live lives free from fear, and want, and peril. And ask yourself, are you doing everything you can to protect it. Are we doing everything we can to make their lives safer, and more secure, and more prosperous?”

His visit served as a clarion call for specific actions by the international community, not just by the United States. If we are able to enhance our understanding of the Arctic to better predict future impacts in the Arctic and elsewhere, and engage in unprecedented cooperation with other nations to respond to the huge challenges we face, our children’s children will be better off.

Top image: President Obama visiting with students in Dillingham, Alaska, during his September 2015 trip to the Arctic. (The White House/Pete Souza)

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