Top U.S. Official's Goals for Arctic Include Improving Americans' 'Awareness' of Region

Jun 12, 2015

A wide-ranging plan for the Arctic – a place most Americans don’t know much about.

Editor's note: First of a two-part series.

Secretary of State John Kerry has outlined an ambitious agenda for the Arctic Council to pursue during the two years that the United States will chair the organization of circumpolar nations:

“First, addressing the impacts of climate change,” Kerry told fellow foreign ministers at the Council's April 24 ministerial meeting in Canada. “Second, promoting ocean safety, security and stewardship. And third, improving economic and living conditions for Arctic communities.”

Robert Papp is U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic and the nation’s point man on the Arctic Council. And he says he’ll also focus on another important effort: that is, educating Americans about the Arctic.

Robert Papp, U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic
Credit U.S. State Department

“We need to increase the awareness of the people in the Lower 48,” Papp said in a recent interview. “We need to bring the challenges that are faced in Alaska to the attention of our Congress and the administration.”

Americans don’t know much about the Arctic, as show most recently in a survey by a Canadian think tank. Papp says that’s at least partly due to geography.

“All the other arctic countries are connected to the Arctic,” he said. “It’s in their culture. But the United States is probably the least connected to its arctic, because we are physically disconnected – Alaska is, as a state.”

Papp says Americans need to understand the Arctic is changing rapidly, due to a warming climate that’s raised temperatures there twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Circumpolar sea ice is melting and thinning, opening up shipping lanes and access to resources such as oil and gas.

He says Americans also should know about the challenges of operating in the vast and remote region – like he did firsthand, during his first hitch aboard a Coast Guard cutter some 40 years ago, while assigned to duty in the Bering Sea.

“I learned about the tyranny of time and distance,” he said. “Everything is so far apart. It takes so long to get anywhere. And I learned about the ferocious weather that you face up here. Weather that in other places would be called hurricanes.”

Papp says that’s why the Arctic Council adopted agreements over the past couple of years on search and rescue and oil-spill response assistance at sea. He says the council member nations will conduct training exercises in the near future to ensure those agreements work.

Next week: Papp says Alaska needs more infrastructure for increased shipping, resource development.