Obama Moves to Bring Order to Groups Dealing with Arctic Warming

President's decree calls for 'science-based decision making' as the Arctic warms twice as rapidly as rest of U.S.

In a recent executive order, President Obama created the Arctic Executive Steering Committee. This group will attempt to wrangle the various agencies in charge of Arctic programs and better coordinate their work in the face of climate change. Credit: Pete Souza/White House

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As Senate votes were rolling in Wednesday—declaring climate change real, but denying mankind’s role in it—President Barack Obama was issuing a different kind of decree. In the first executive order after his State of the Union address, the White House created the Arctic Executive Steering Committee, which will attempt to wrangle the numerous agencies in charge of Arctic programs and better coordinate their work in the face of climate change. 

“Over the past 60 years, climate change has caused the Alaskan Arctic to warm twice as rapidly as the rest of the United States,” Obama said in the order, “and will continue to transform the Arctic as its consequences grow more severe.”

The order included the United States’ responsibility to “mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change” and to be ruled by “science-based decision making.”

It comes in the lead-up to the United States’ taking over leadership of the Arctic Council, a voluntary intergovernmental forum consisting of the Arctic states and a number of observer nations that addresses environmental and economic development issues in the Arctic. In April, the U.S. will take the helm from Canada, which has led the council for the last two years.

There is currently a sprawling network of agencies and departments that deal with Arctic-related issues, not to mention the state, local and Alaska Native tribal governments, which the new steering committee will also include. 

“As the Arctic has changed, the number of Federal working groups created to address the growing strategic importance and accessibility of this critical region has increased,” the executive order says. 

A May 2014 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended that in advance of the U.S.’s taking over leadership of the Arctic Council, the agencies working on Arctic-related issues develop a strategy for participating in the Arctic Council and develop a process to review and track their work. 

“In collaborating on Council work, the agencies face challenges by not having a clear direction or specific resources for their work,” the GAO report reads. “Without a clear direction or specific resources for the collaborative effort, the agencies face challenges prioritizing the work, delivering unified messages to other Arctic States, and consistently participating in the Council.”

This new steering committee appears to be an attempt to rectify that. 

The move was applauded by a number of environmental groups, especially for its inclusion of indigenous communities, academic entities and the private and nonprofit sectors, but not everyone was pleased. 

In a statement, Lisa Murkowski, the Republican senator from Alaska, the country’s only Arctic state, called the order’s priorities “unbalanced” and said, “We cannot ‘study’ ourselves into inaction.”

Instead of more studies, she said, “Investment and vision are needed—in infrastructure, ice breakers, and a predictable federal oil and gas permitting process—to craft an Arctic economy.”