Time and again scientists clamor about the detrimental impacts of climate change, hoping to scare both governments and the public into taking action before we pass the point of no return. The timeframe for many of these impacts is generally so far off that they seldom generate any real concerns or motivate action, but in one critical ecological region of the world, these impacts are now coming to fruition.
As climate change warms the Arctic at a rate almost four times that of the rest of the globe, sea ice coverage is quickly dissipating, opening up previously inaccessible regions to human activity and resource exploitation. Offshore drilling and new shipping corridors, once considered too infeasible in the Arctic due to ice, are now becoming realities. Increased human activity poses a detrimental risk to Arctic biodiversity and the ecosystem as a whole.
The Obama administration announced last year its plans to lease certain areas of federal waters in the Arctic Ocean to energy companies for oil drilling. These operations increase the likelihood of a major oil spill that could destroy key wildlife and ruin a pristine ecosystem. Unlike Deepwater Horizon in 2010, an Arctic oil spill would be extremely difficult to contain because ice coverage and a lack of infrastructure would hinder an effective response.
Global shipping through the Arctic has increased exponentially over the past six years, cutting down shipping times between Arctic states. As more vessels navigate the Arctic to ship goods more efficiently, they risk dragging invasive species from other parts of the world into delicate Arctic ecosystems. Increased shipping traffic also risks emitting carbon dioxide that could acidify Arctic waters and hasten the demise of marine wildlife.
The Arctic can be considered a keystone ecosystem for its role in regulating global environmental patterns. Destroying Arctic biodiversity would accelerate the impacts of climate change because its vast array of species plays a critical role in supporting feedback mechanisms and carbon storage functions that affect weather patterns and ocean currents. The economic impact of losing Arctic species would also be disastrous: according to the World Wildlife Fund, the Arctic supports some of the world’s richest fisheries, contributing as much as $2.2 billion to annual global catches.
What can the U.S. do? Some of the most diverse and ecologically abundant portions of the Arctic fall within the U.S. exclusive economic zone (EEZ), an area extending out to 200 miles off of a country’s coastline over which that country has sole jurisdiction. As a significant portion of human activity in the Arctic falls within the U.S. EEZ, the U.S. has jurisdiction to impose limits. The problem lies in motivating an increasingly polarized Congress to take action on an issue some refuse to acknowledge altogether.
To steer clear of political gridlock, Obama could act unilaterally to designate certain federal waters off the coast of Alaska as Marine National Monuments. Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, the President can designate portions of federal lands (or waters) as national monuments without the consent of Congress, protecting them from exploitation. The precedent exists: Obama already invoked the Antiquities Act to protect vast swaths of the Pacific from development back in mid-2014, creating the world’s largest marine sanctuary. Designating areas such as the Aleutian Islands, the Arctic Coast, and the U.S. portion of the Bering Strait as Marine National Monuments would keep human activity to a minimum and would prohibit exploitative activities like drilling and shipping.
Sizable opposition exists, and Congress maintains the authority to strike down any national monument as per the Antiquities Act, but Congress has only used its veto power on a handful of occasions since the act was passed over a century ago.
Though establishing marine sanctuaries in U.S. waters in the Arctic does little to stop exploitation in other parts of the Arctic by other countries, it would be a welcome first step toward meaningful environmental protection efforts and would enhance the legitimacy of the U.S. with respect to environmental leadership, all while mitigating the most catastrophic impacts of climate change on one of the world’s most important ecological regions.