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Secretary Clinton says rapid climate change in the Arctic poses a challenge

Lauren Morello, E&E reporter
Published: Monday, June 4, 2012

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton got a close-up look at Arctic climate change Saturday, as she boarded a research vessel for a short trip through Arctic waters near Tromsø, Norway.

The message she received from scientists from the Norwegian Polar Institute was stark. "Many of the predictions about warming in the Arctic are being surpassed by the actual data," Clinton said. "That was not necessarily a surprising, but sobering fact to be told."

Her travel to Tromsø was part of a multi-day swing through Denmark, Norway and Sweden, where she emphasized the need for cooperation as climate change creates new opportunities for shipping, oil and gas exploration, tourism and fishing in the Arctic Ocean.

"A lot of countries are looking at what will be the potential for exploration and extraction of natural resources, as well as new sea lanes, and are increasingly expressing an interest in the Arctic," Clinton said in an appearance with Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre.

That includes the United States, an Arctic power by virtue of its Alaskan coastline, which is working with its high-north neighbors to prepare for a rush of activity as the region's cap of sea ice shrinks.

The eight Arctic nations, working under the banner of the Arctic Council, agreed last year on a binding treaty governing search and rescue in the Arctic and are preparing another agreement on oil spill response.

They also voted to establish a permanent secretariat in Tromsø, signaling the climate-driven transformation of the Arctic Council from a forum for discussion to a body actively making international policy.

"We want the Arctic Council to remain the premier institution that deals with Arctic questions," Clinton said. "So one of the issues on our agenda is how we provide an opportunity for other nations very far on the Arctic to learn more about the Arctic, to be integrated into the cooperative framework that we are establishing, and in effect, to set some standards that we would like to see everyone follow."

Failure to ratify Law of the Sea remains a U.S. handicap

But Clinton noted that the United States is hampered by its failure to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The United States is the only industrialized nation that has not joined the treaty, which took effect in 1994 and sets rules for freedom of navigation, fishing, oil and gas development, deep seabed mining and environmental protection.

Two attempts to send the Law of the Sea to the Senate floor, in 2005 and 2007, sputtered in the face of a small but determined group of Republican senators who cited concerns about the treaty's effect on U.S. sovereignty.

But the Obama administration is trying again and "pushing hard," Clinton said.

"We abide by the international law that undergirds the convention, but we think the United States should be a member, because the convention sets down the rules of the road that protect freedom of navigation, provide maritime security, serve the interests of every nation that relies on sea lanes for commerce and trade and also sets the framework for exploration for the natural resources that may be present in the Arctic."

Clinton and other top administration officials say the treaty has taken on new importance as climate change opens the Arctic to new activity. Countries that are party to the Law of the Sea can file claims to expand their maritime boundaries, laying claim to the seafloor beyond each nation's 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.

In the Arctic, that means grabbing a larger share of seabed that contains up to a quarter of the world's unexplored oil and gas deposits, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Russia, Norway, Canada, Denmark and other Arctic nations have filed claims or are preparing them. But the United States can neither file its own claim nor dispute other countries' claims unless it ratifies the Law of the Sea.

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500


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