With the US election just days away, anxiety is mounting about whether Republican incumbent Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden will come away victorious. The stakes have never been higher for the Arctic, say environmental scholars and regional experts.
While both presidential candidates have relatively similar policies for Arctic security, they differ substantially when it comes to tackling climate change - the main caveat being that one of them doesn’t acknowledge its existence.
Henry Lee, director of the environmental and natural resource program at the Harvard Kennedy School, is skeptical of the Trump government’s capacity to discuss climate issues going forward.
“Biden would not go to a ministerial meeting and claim that climate change is not a problem and you can’t put it in a final declaration,” Lee says.
Aside from trying to buy Greenland, Lee says he can not think of any developments that the Trump government had made in the Arctic, but he does praise Trump for making efforts to expand the US icebreaker fleet.
“Icebreaking is very necessary, it’s outrageous that we haven’t invested in this for decades,” Lee says.
“It’s very needed.”
Trump in the Arctic
Since current US president Donald Trump assumed office in 2016, he has rolled back climate policy and protections, curtailed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), pushed for increased natural resource extraction, including in offshore areas, and said he would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.
He also finalized plans to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for drilling, a move that was heavily criticized.
"Under Trump, the main focus in the Arctic has been national security, which is the “heart of his Arctic policy,” says Brandon Boylan, an associate professor of political science and the director of Arctic and Northern studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“We have had had nearly four years of a Trump presidency so we know what his positions towards Alaska and the Arctic are,” Boylan says.
“I would say if he happens to win, we will see a continuation of these things.”
Boylan acknowledge that Trump’s response to the more aggressive states in the Arctic was appropriate at times.
“We need to pay attention to Chinese and Russian Arctic activities,” Boylan says.
“But Trump’s Arctic policy denies the realities of climate change - under the Department of Defense Arctic strategy, the term “climate change” is not mentioned once, which flies in the face of a large body of science.”
“I would love to see a national security policy or some other policy first off say that climate change is real. We in Alaska know all that all too well, when you have coastal communities sliding into the ocean due to coastal erosion due to climate change,” says Boylan.
The 2019 Department of Defense Arctic Strategy was heavily focused on national security, protecting US interests in the North, and projecting military strength - and while it mentioned the Arctic’s “changing physical environment,” and how reduced sea-ice opens new opportunities for regional development, the report was scant on actually acknowledging the implications of climate change.
Similarly, last year’s Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland concluded in disappointment as the member states were unable to sign a joint declaration for the first time since the Council’s inception in 1996, because the United States was unwilling to discuss climate change.
“The climate-related stuff is so crystal clear, but the Trump administration has been this irresponsible freight train of climate neglect. That can’t continue” says Joel Clement, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.
“If Trump were reelected we know he has no interest in helping Indigenous peoples or addressing climate issues,” Clement says.
Biden’s Arctic plan
Multiple experts have pointed out that while Biden has not been president before, making it difficult to speculate on what his true plans may be, it is likely that he may follow Obama’s example and shape his policy to be similar to the former president, which was largely progressive and focused on climate change.
Alaskan Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski shared similar thoughts at a virtual talk at Arctic Circle on October 6, where she said that Biden will likely return to Obama’s plan and focus more on the environment.
Environmental policy is one of the major components of Biden’s campaign plan overall, and it seems that we can expect it to extend to the Arctic, where Biden has pledged to close ANWR to resource exploration, pursue bans for offshore drilling in the Arctic, and promised to put climate change at the forefront of the agenda at the Arctic Council.
I would love to see a national security policy or some other policy first off say that climate change is real.
His climate strategy also addresses national security in the Arctic.
“He will use the Arctic Council to put a spotlight on Russia’s activities in the Arctic, standing firm with council partners to hold Russian accountable for any efforts to further militarize the region,” the plan says.
Joel Clement from Harvard Kennedy School believes that a Biden administration would provide more help to the “Indigenous residents of the North,” who are on the front lines of climate change.
“Life is very uncertain up there due to all the new transformations that are occurring as a result of the warming. We need to work with Indigenous knowledge holders on this new Arctic. Biden would embrace it, Trump doesn’t care one bit", Clement says.
"How we help people, how we address the effects of the transformation would be like night and day. Trump has neglected this, Biden would pay attention because these are Americans,” Clement says.
“He would install professionals and scientists in areas where you need those people.”
“This election is the most important election for the climate in our lifetime,” says Tim Donaghy, senior research specialist at Greenpeace USA.
“The Arctic is at the forefront of climate issues. The big picture is that the Arctic is the place on the planet that is experiencing climate change the soonest and the fastest. The pace of warming there is really shocking. If Trump gets four more years, all of those things will be cemented in place and it will be much harder to turn the ship around and get going in the other direction,” says Donaghy.
Mark Nevitt, an associate professor at the Syracuse University College of Law, agrees that a Biden administration would handle the issue of climate change more effectively.
“It is critically important. We need to work with the leading climate scientists to understand the pace of climate change, permafrost melting, and its impact on local and Indigenous communities”, he says in an email to High North News.
“From a climate science perspective, a future President Biden will emphasize placing resources into better understanding the Arctic’s changing climate. Much like Obama. He has an ambitious, $2 trillion dollar “Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution & Environmental Justice” that is the most-forward looking climate plan of any presidential nominee in history. The Arctic is heavily mentioned and discussed in this context,” he says.
US Arctic policy after the election
Regardless of who takes over the presidency next, it is likely that American military focus in the region and opposition to Russian and Chinese maneuvers there will remain.
“I think both Trump and Biden view Russia and China warily in the Arctic. Biden has explicitly critiqued Russian militarization in the Arctic in his climate plan, and will use the Arctic Council to strengthen US relations with allies,” says Nevitt.
Brandon Boylan at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, also believes that the military aspect of Arctic policy will be maintained regardless of who is in charge.
“Military engagement and interest [in the region] will likely remain under a Biden administration,” Boyland says.
Joel Clement at the Harvard Kennedy School pointed out that even if Trump gets a second term, US organizations will still keep working towards progress and cooperation in the Arctic.
“The work will continue, because it’s far too important and all Arctic states know that,” said Clement. “The Arctic Council will have to adjust to one of the states having its head in the sand.”