Anthropocene Chronicle 001: notes on house subcomittee hearing 12.10.2014

The United States as an Arctic Nation: Opportunities in the High North

Rep. Rohrabacher (R-CA): begins by noting that people have only been seeing the Arctic through the lens of global warming. (You can almost hear the scare quotes around “global warming”, he says the words roundly, as if something bad is caught in his mouth, the raised eyebrows.) Whether the changes in the Arctic are due to natural variations, as has happened in the past, or due to internal combustion engines — “Whatever it is, the fact remains that the Arctic is more accessible” than in previous decades.

Rep. Rohrabacher: The U.S. has its Arctic Council chairmanship coming up (2015 – 2017).

Our government’s role is to ensure private industry follows the rules and has best practices, but not to block progress.

Chinese scholars have taken to calling China a “near-Arctic state”. If the U.S. doesn’t act, “we know who is waiting in the wings to fill the void.”

Rep. Keating (D-MA): It’s thoughtful of you to have this meeting right now, the last one of the year, talking about the North Pole area when so many millions of children are anxiously awaiting… I must concede that there’s an element of skepticism about this, but as you said, you don’t believe in scientific evidence, so anything is possible.

Keating expresses worries about Russia, sovereignty.

Admiral Papp, U.S. State Dept. Special Representative for the Arctic: “While I’m a sailor and not a scientist…” he has 40 years of personal observation of Arctic changes. Tells anecdotes about being on an icebreaker in 1976. This is a good strategy given the audience – experiential wisdom.

The elders in Barrow, Alaska, have melting ice cellars; their utility system is almost breached. “It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out things are changing.”

We are centuries behind Scandinavia in Arctic development.

Rohrabacher (R-CA): Back in the 1970s, all the scientists were saying we were in “global cooling” – what were the changes and openings when the Vikings were there?

Papp mentions the 10,000 year old land bridge between Siberia and Alaska.

[Rohrabacher teases Rep. Young (R-AK) about bridges — Young is famous for an Alaskan “bridge to nowhere.”]

Papp: There are stories about land grabs, but the reality is that those boundaries [in the Arctic] are pretty well defined. We’re concerned about the high seas, about migrating fish. “We have the ability to get out in advance of development.” He uses the analogy of a house he bought in Fairfax County (Northern Virigina) 20 years earlier – now there’s sprawl all around, but it took government bureaucracies time to catch up with the sprawl. [Certainly, an analogy the audience can appreciate.]

Papp mentions the words preservation or conservation.

Rep. Young (R-Alaska, not actually young, been in Congress since 1973): How can you preserve something that’s changing? You do not. You adapt. How are we going to adapt to the change?

Papp: With regards to Arctic development, we’re at the base of the pyramid: food, water shelter.

Rep. Young: Barrow wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the white man.

We’re not going to put firewalls up, we’re not going to freeze the ground again. How are we going to adapt? When is your council going to talk about adapting? … What is your vision of what the Arctic will look like 50 years from now?

Papp begins to answer … Swedish adaptation study… there domestic issues and resource issues that the U.S. will need to address…. best practices…

Young: Resource extraction is going to take place, isn’t that the case?

Papp: Most likely it will.

Young: Is resource extraction in conflict with climate change goals?

Papp: No, it’s not in conflict at all – committed to sustainable development.

Young: Now, last thing … I always get a kick out of the permafrost. What is permafrost?

Papp: Permafrost is an accumulation of sediment… soil, animals, things that have accumulated over centuries… that froze

[Young interrupts.] What was it before it froze?

Papp: What was it before it froze? It would have been swamp…

[Young interrupts.] It was soil, that grew those animals.. this brings me back to the concept of change. … You mentioned 11,000 years ago. There was no ice at the north pole. That’s amazing. The ice was all the way, 12 million years ago, there was ice in New Mexico. That was before automobiles were around. Keep that in mind. Permafrost was a body of orgasms…

[Neighboring Representatives begin to turn red]

Young: …what is your vision?

Papp’s vision includes clean energy, like wind and wave energy, power and clean water; cruise tourism; permanent bases, not just seasonal ones.

Stockman (R-TX): represents an oil district; concerned about icebreakers.

Some talk of icebreakers, and how we have 1, and Russia has a dozen.

Papp: We are a bipolar nation, literally; we have territory in the Antarctic as well. [So we need more icebreakers]

Scott Borgerson, well-known Arctic scholar, CEO of Cargo Metrics Technologies: We have the choice to invest or not invest. If you look at a satellite view of the Koreas, South Korea is lit up and North Korea is dark. The Arctic in the future may look like that, with Russia and Norway brightly lit – and the U.S. area dark. We have to invest in infrastructure today.

We need to channel Lee Kuan Yew, who brought infrastructure to Singapore. We need a deepwater port, airports, road, rail, intermodal – to think big, be bolder in our approach.

Discussion turns to UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea), and how embarassing it is to be in the company of Iran and North Korea who haven’t signed it.

Rohrabacher: if you look at the membership of the UNGA, you realize that “half the nations [of the UN] are governed by crooks and lunatics” – so if the law of the sea treaty would in some way put us under the UN to solve disputes, that’s something I would not be supportive of..

… In terms of this is the warmest winter that Alaska has had… the question with global warming is who causes this, if this is a natural phenomenon or a manmade phenomenon… we should know that this is the coldest winter they’ve had in Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and places like that… and we also know that in the Antarctic, ice is expanding…

Stockman (R-TX): If you look at the Gulf, you see the line where Florida is, and that’s where the drilling stops. And Cuba’s going to come in and take a straw and start getting Florida oil, and they aren’t going to have the same environmental protections that we do. And I guarantee you’re going to start seeing the same thing in the Arctic circle. I predict that 10 years from now, we’re still going to be in the situation we’re in today. Thank you.

  • March 28, 2016