U.S. Arctic Policy: Climate Change, UNCLOS and Strategic Opportunity
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Recent trends strongly indicate that human activity in the Arctic region will continue to increase for the foreseeable future. This raises certain national and global security concerns. UNCLOS represents the international consensus on rules governing the use of the planet’s oceans. This treaty was developed between 1973 and 1982; it was implemented on 16 November 1994. It combined several treaties governing laws of the sea that were previously separate. So, UNCLOS is a comprehensive treaty that codifies international law for the vast global commons of the world’s oceans, which make up nearly three-quarters of the earth’s surface. Notably, UNCLOS is an internationally accepted — and therefore a legitimate — means of defining sovereignty over the world’s oceans. It is particularly important in the Arctic, where several nations — including the United States — have conflicting claims. Articles within UNCLOS offera framework for a peaceful resolution of sovereignty disputes. UNCLOS clearly specifies state and international rights as they pertain to the world’s oceans.
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The U.S. Geological Survey released a report in 2008 that indicated approximately 13 percent of the world’s untapped oil reserves reside in the Arctic region. One-third of these reserves lie inside the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off the northern slope of Alaska. The report also estimated that approximately 30 percent of the world’s remaining natural gas reserves reside within the Arctic region.19 In recent years, icecap melting, along with advances in technology, has rendered retrieval of natural resources in the Arctic both feasible and acceptable in terms of environmental risk.
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A cooperative approach among international partners is key to ensuring U.S. interests are met within the Arctic region. A multinational effort is essential to ensure both human safety and appropriate environmental stewardship. A unilateral U.S. approach is simply not feasible. However, as the world’s sole superpower and as a contiguous Arctic nation, it is imperative that the U.S. assumes an Arctic leadership role within the international community.
Perhaps the most important step for the U.S. is to ratify UNCLOS in order to establish the legitimacy of U.S. leadership among the other stakeholders who have interests in the Arctic. This would partner the United States with the seven other Arctic nations (Russia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland), along with six indigenous organizations that are permanent members of the Arctic Council.52 This multinational assembly meets semiannually and “provides the greatest potential for a comprehensive resolution of environmental and governance issues in the Arctic.”53 NSPD-66/HSPD-25 clearly acknowledges that the “Arctic Council has produced positive results for the United States by working within its limited mandate of environmental protection and sustainable development.”54 U.S. representation on the Arctic Council has slowly increased since its first meeting in 1996. In fact, in March 2010 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with her counterparts from Canada, Russia, Denmark, and Norway in Chelsea, Quebec, as part of the Arctic Ocean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. This meeting affirmed the importance of the Arctic Council, its membership, and the need for “new thinking on economic development and environmental protection.”55 However, the Arctic Council is hindered by its “lack of regulatory authority and the mandate to enact or enforce cooperative security-driven initiatives.”56 Although very useful for “scientific assessments” and “policy-relevant knowledge”, the Council does not address military concerns.57