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Arctic-Policy Activist: U.S., Alaska Must Respond to Climate Change Challenges

The University of Alaska-Fairbanks kicked-off Arctic Day 2014 Wednesday with an exhibition of UAF’s research projects in the region, and a talk about how climate change is reshaping it. The keynote speaker says the United States and Alaska must adapt more quickly to a warming Arctic. And she says news media must do a better job in communicating the importance of responding to those changes.

China is sending cargo ships along an Arctic shipping route made ice-free by climate change. And Russia is building up its military to secure the route along its northern coast, and ramping up offshore oil drilling in the region.

While those and other industrialized nations are racing to cash in on climate change, the United States seems slow to grasp the new economic and geopolitical realities of the region. That according to Alice Rogoff, who argues the nation and its only Arctic state must respond much more quickly to changes in the region.

“China has probably done five times the long-term strategic thinking about their national interest in the Arctic than the United States has,” she said. “Well, why? That’s because they believe in long-term thinking and planning. And it’s not something we do very well in Washington.”

Rogoff has for years been advocating for a greater U.S. role in the circumpolar region while serving as chair of the international Arctic Circle Assembly advisory council. She’s also talked and written about it frequently in different forums and media interviews.

Rogoff told a crowd in the Davis Concert Hall on the UAF campus that because U.S. policymakers have been slow to respond to the warming Arctic, Alaska is unprepared for the changes it will bring, especially increased shipping through the Bering Strait. Unlike the Russians, who planextensive maritime projects in the region.

“They now have been very candid in telling us just how much more investment they plan in Arctic infrastructure,” she said. “And that’s infrastructure for military purposes, but also for civilian shipping and civilian port development.”

Rogoff says the state and the nation have an ideal opportunity now to respond to international challenges presented by climate change because the U.S. representative to the Arctic Council, retired Coast Guard Admiral Joseph Papp, is about to assume chairmanship of the council.

Credit Alaska Dispatch News
Alaska Dispatch News owner Alice Rogoff

She says the United States and Alaska should both move quickly to develop infrastructure to accommodate the Arctic shipping boom, especially a port on Alaska’s west coast to accommodate a coast guard station. She says that would trigger private-sector buy-in.

“They will invest in a port as soon as a government agency and a  private company each commit to doing business in that port,” she said. “In this case it’s the Coast Guard, and it’s either Shell Oil Company or somebody else who has a commercial interest in operating in the Bering Sea.”

Rogoff says she believes that’s the kind of federal and state investment that’s needed to launch much-needed projects all around Alaska not just to deal with the changes of a warming Arctic – but to create jobs and improve quality of life for residents of Western Alaska.

She says in order to get political leaders to support funding for those projects, Americans need to be better informed about Alaska and its challenges. And she says news media will have to do a better job at educating Americans about this part of the world.

Rogoff is a longtime media executive and owner of the Alaska Dispatch News. She says there’s a lot of ignorance about Alaska among U.S. news media. But she’s soon some improvement in recent years among old and new media. Rogoff says the state could help promote coverage further by moving ahead and investing in ambitious projects.

“If we make plans to build that port, The Daily Beast and Time Magazine will have to start writing about why on earth they would be building a port on the Bering Sea.”

UAF’s Arctic Day events will continued this morning with a talk by U.S. Army Alaska Commander Major General Michael Shields. The general talked about the military’s 21st-century approach to training and operating in the Arctic. And an afternoon forum was scheduled with UAF professors and administrators on the university’s Arctic Initiatives.

Editor's note: This story was revised to include more details about the United States assuming chairmanship of the Arctic Council next year, and a reference to Thursday's Arctic Day events.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.