The melting Arctic gets a U.S. ambassador and an influx of military cash
The Arctic is melting — and that's setting off a geopolitical rivalry for the region's once inaccessible resources and shipping routes. In response, the U.S. will soon see its first ambassador-at-large for the Arctic Region; the Biden administration last month nominated Mike Sfraga to the position.
"What we're seeing now is something that is just so dramatic." Sfraga told students at Duke University last year. "[T]he Arctic has warmed nearly four times the global average."
While indigenous communities have long thrived in communion with the land there, nation states haven't had much presence in the northern latitudes because it hasn't been ripe for exploitation. Until sea ice began rapidly receding, oil, gas, shipping and minerals were all under frigid lock and key.
But with dwindling sea ice, tapping the region's resources is becoming more feasible. And in conjunction with the economic opportunities, nations are eyeing big military spending.
Russia has already ramped up its military presence and the United States is playing catch-up. Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski's team told NPR in a statement that dealing with national security threats from Russia and China in the region will be a top challenge.
There is bipartisan support for funding that pricey military response in the Arctic even as many in Congress actively reject mitigating the effects of climate change.
What are nations after?
"Because of climate change, we've seen a whole new ocean open in our lifetime. We now have quite a navigable Arctic," Sherri Goodman, secretary general of the International Military Council on Climate and Security, told NPR.
Goodman says both China and Russia have substantive plans for the region. Both nations, just as the U.S. has, have acknowledged global climate change and resulting sea ice recession as the impetus for making moves on the Arctic's resources. A 2020 study published in Nature Climate Change projects iceless summers in the Arctic in just over a decade.
"Russia under Putin envisions a toll road for transit across the northern sea route that would transit goods and energy from Asia to ports in Europe," Goodman says. "And as part of that, he has militarized and nuclearized the Arctic to ensure that ships requiring access would have to rely on Russia's icebreaking escort. And we've seen more aggressive military behavior by Russia."
China is working with Russia on extraction opportunities. And the United States doesn't want to be left behind.
The Biden administration's four-pillared Arctic strategy includes a foundation of economic development and infrastructure investment.
Of course, plans to chase more pollution-intensive resources are effectively doubling down on climate change — it's unclear how the existential threat of wildlife deterioration, food insecurity, storm severity and the likes of Earth's rapidly dwindling sea ice are factored into grand money-making ventures in the northern latitudes.
How is DOD responding?
Climate change will increasingly drive conflict and tensions around the globe. The U.S. Defense Department now factors this global instability into every mission it conducts, per a 2016 DOD directive.
Every branch of the U.S. military has published climate adaptation plans, citing an array of concerns from bases struggling with sea level rise to instability driven by food and water scarcity and climate-driven migration.
Climate change is "driving mission for the Department of Defense," Joe Bryan, special climate adviser to the DOD, told the Brookings Institution last year. "At the same time, on the supply side, it's impacting our readiness and ability to actually meet that demand."
Goodman of the International Military Council on Climate and Security echoed the problem.
"DOD recognizes that climate change is a threat multiplier for instability in fragile regions of the world and here at home today, too," she said. "And it's reshaping the way we need to construct our force posture to be able to mitigate risk from the changing climate."
The Arctic is emerging as a prominent example of this instability.
Russia has already begun expanding its armed presence in the Arctic substantially beyond U.S. presence in the region.
They have an abundance of airfields, missile systems, dozens of icebreakers — some of which are nuclear powered — and they conduct military exercises in the region.
The U.S. is invested in filling that arms gap – from bipartisan congressional prerogatives to the White House's commitment to "enhancing the capabilities required to defend our interests in the Arctic," as outlined in the October 2022 National Strategy for the Arctic Region.
Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., chair of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness, told NPR the armed services face an extreme operational challenge that needs to be met with training and resources, including a base on the northern coast of Alaska. One major gap in preparedness is the lack of Navy and Coast Guard vessels able to traverse the ice.
"The bottom line is, I believe we're at two operational, incredibly old [ice breakers]," he said. "The Russians have dozens ... from a ship standpoint, [we're] really kind of outgunned up there in both presence and capability."
Plans are already underway for the U.S. military; their training and tech is evolving to meet the environmental conditions and some Coast Guard ice-breaking vessels are in the works. Substantially more is expected in the coming months and years.
At what cost?
Spending and actions around the world on mitigating climate change have failed to meet U.N.-set goals, fueling DOD's growing concern and attempts to model future instability.
As the consequences of climate change grow, the required financial response will also grow; military action in the Arctic is one of those consequences.
Although there is no bipartisan support to curb emissions, there is bipartisan support for responding to the melting Arctic and Russian and China's presence with military capability – though Arctic spending is not specifically categorized as climate spending in the National Defense Authorization Act, the bill that funds everything from soldiers to aircrafts for the DOD.
Less than 1% – or about $3.1 billion – of the funding in this year's more than $850 billion NDAA is allocated specifically for climate change measures. Those climate-change funds mostly comprise infrastructure investments for base resiliency and vehicle electrification projects, among others.
But that number doesn't reflect the full extent of climate change's impact on DOD spending. The unprecedented warming in the Arctic caused by climate change presents a potential for much, much more spending on climate due to the United States' gap in readiness. That gap concerns California Democratic Rep. John Garamendi, the previous chair of the subcommittee on readiness, for the passage of the NDAA '23.
"The fact is the Navy has no vessels that are capable of operating in ice and therefore we cede control of the Arctic to China and Russia, both of whom have extensive icebreaking fleets, including Russia with nuclear powered icebreakers," he warned.
"We're way, way behind. ... We may, much to my disappointment, have to do a long-term lease of icebreakers from other countries and repurpose them for our own Coast Guard and military. And that'll come into [the next] NDAA."
The most recent DOD spending bill requires a report detailing the feasibility of Navy Destroyers outfitted with icebreaking capability for the Arctic — the current ships, without icebreaking hulls, cost well over $1 billion each to construct; the 2022 NDAA authorized $4.9 billion for 3 destroyers.
Ships, aircraft, supplies, infrastructure, soldiers and more all come into play in the consistent calls from the White House, Congress and experts when discussing America's response to the warming Arctic. All of that must also be tailored to the conditions of the Arctic, including the complicating issue of building on thawing permafrost — the land is sinking as it warms.
None of this is cheap.
Military spending on a changing climate has the potential to outpace mitigation spending from the U.S. government in bills like Biden's Inflation Reduction Act, and the U.N.'s spending on programs like the Green Climate Fund, its largest climate adaptation and mitigation purse.
The coming NDAAs will show just how much climate change is going to influence defense spending.
Despite Republican control of the House, Garamendi says he doesn't expect to see DOD funding wane in the Arctic just because it's tied to climate change.
"I believe that the House Armed Services Committee will continue to push forward," he says. "And the icebreakers are on everybody's mind now. ... It is an accepted problem and I believe that we'll stay on track."