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Editorial: U.S. places economic benefit ahead of environmental concern in polar region

Published: Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Updated: Tuesday, January 21, 2014 23:01

Earlier this January, the world was treated to what many perceived as an amusingly cruel instance of irony when a team of climate scientists became trapped aboard the Russian research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy, in the middle of an Arctic Ocean glacier. The irony was further compounded by the arrival of the Chinese research vessel Xue Long, which subsequently became stuck in the same ice sheet. In the midst of these arctic antics, Washington made two decisions: first, dispatch the USCGC Polar Star - the world’s strongest ice breaker - to rescue both stranded vessels. More importantly, the Navy, with cooperation from the Pentagon, announced plans to dominate a new shipping lane as the Arctic Ocean ice recedes in the coming decades, all in what appears to be an emerging culture of economic climate change exploitation.

Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the US Navy’s top officer, remarked “The inevitable opening of the Arctic will essentially create a new coast on America’s north,” which would give American energy enterprises increased access to oil and gas resources worth an estimated $1 trillion. The trade generated by these emerging opportunities would be shipped along the new “Transpolar Route,” which the US Navy expects to be navigable by 2025. Despite facing $73 billion in budget cuts over the next two years, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel committed the Pentagon to extending its security operations into a region that holds an estimated 30 percent of undiscovered gas deposits.

This joint Navy-Pentagon announcement signals the death knell of climate change denial; the WSJ shared the Navy’s outlook that, “Climate change has had a visible and direct impact on the Arctic region.” Julian Barnes of the WSJ continues on to explain that an area of sea ice more than four times the size of Texas has melted, and that even in the middle of winter, the 2013 sea ice levels are the sixth lowest in recorded history. The Navy believes that by 2045 the Transpolar Route will be open year round. Rather than concern itself with addressing an impending ecological disaster, Washington prepares itself to reap the economic rewards of an iceless Arctic. The Polar Star, for example, was originally commissioned in 1970, but the Coast Guard put the vessel through a $90 million refit in 2010; refitting a standard warship for arctic conditions will cost $300 million, and constructing just one of the 10 new ice-breakers that some in the Navy clamor for, will require $784 million. Rather than being alarmed by the monstrous and blatant effects of climate change, Washington has become ecstatic as part of an increasing enthusiasm over potential economic exploitation of ecological disasters. 

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