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Former EPA administrator speaks about Arctic policy with Coast Guard cadets

New London — With a rapidly warming climate making shipping routes sought for centuries more navigable, vast mineral resources and a narrow strait that separates unfriendly countries, the Arctic is soon due to draw more of the world's attention.

But the United States needs to make serious investments in the fast-changing region, said former New Jersey governor and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman.

In contrast to countries such as Russia, "most Americans don't think of America as an Arctic nation," she said.

"But we are ... and as we see the Bering Sea open up and more commercial activity be possible, the role of the Coast Guard is going to expand," she said.

Whitman's talk Friday afternoon was part of the Hedrick Fellowship address, given annually by a national leader to the cadets of the Coast Guard Academy.

Currently the president of energy and environmental consulting firm The Whitman Strategy Group, Whitman and Admiral Thad W. Allen recently released a Council on Foreign Relations report on the Arctic which Whitman discussed Friday, arguing that this country needs to prioritize Arctic policy.

The report, "Arctic Imperatives," addresses the strategic consequences to the United States as global warming changes the climate of the Arctic, and increased human activity in the area strains the country's investment in the region.

"We must recognize global climate change is a fact (and) acknowledge its effect ... we cannot walk away from this challenge," Whitman said, describing climate change as a "threat to the Coast Guard and the future."

With change comes an opportunity, however, and Whitman noted that new trade routes could bring more people into the Arctic than ever before, potentially redirecting shipping lines from the Panama Canal to areas once packed with ice.

That will require an investment in the country's fleet of icebreakers, which has dwindled from a Cold War-era high of eight to only one heavy icebreaker and one medium icebreaker.

Beyond breaking ice, icebreakers serve as "mobile offshore command units that are able to go anywhere in the globe," said Distinguished Visiting Professor of Maritime Policy Rebecca Pincus, who serves as the chairwoman of Arctic Policy.

The ships, which can cost from hundreds of millions to nearly $1 billion, are "mobile command centers with air communications that hold hundreds of people ... they are truly unique," she said.

The report recommends increasing the number of Coast Guard heavy icebreakers from only one to a minimum of three, with more recommended.

Additionally, it calls for the United States to strengthen cooperation with other Arctic nations, fund research, support sustainable development and Alaskan Native communities and sign the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea.

"It's a call to action for the U.S. to increase its focus on the strategic commitment to the Arctic and its role there," Whitman told the cadets.

The Coast Guard Academy established the Center for Arctic Strategy and Policy in 2014, and Pincus said the report "captures a lot of points that have been under discussion" in Arctic research.

"(The) report is shining a spotlight explaining the national significance and why people should care" about the Arctic, she added. Hopefully it will "get attention and educate the public."

"The Arctic is a really unique area that folds up the distance between the Coast Guard out in the world and the Academy ... it's super complex, evolving rapidly and very political," Pincus said.


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