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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Arctic Indigenous peoples – including Inuit, Inupiaq, Athabascan, Yup’ik, Chukchi and Sami – are resilient but will be increasingly challenged by climate change. That’s according to the United Nations Environmental Program. A group of U.S. senators is asking the Biden administration to step up its attention to Arctic affairs.

The University of Lapland Arctic Center estimates Indigenous peoples make up about 10 percent of the populations of the Arctic nations of Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Canada and the U.S. (Alaska). Greenland is 80 percent Inuit. Arctic and sub-Arctic communities in Alaska are 60 to 98 percent Inupiaq, Yup’ik, and Athabascan. Indigenous peoples of Alaska and in other countries depend on wildlife for subsistence.

However, the Arctic is heating up at four times the rate of the rest of the planet. The ocean is warming, impacting fish and marine mammals. Wildlife is threatened by higher temperatures and habitat destruction. And infrastructure is being put at risk due to melting permafrost. Melting sea ice is opening the door to increased fishing and to development of minerals, including oil and gas, in Arctic waters.

The value of those resources has caught the attention of Russia and China. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping last week announced plans to strengthen and continue their strategic partnership on resource development in the Arctic. Russia for several years has been building military ports and facilities on its Arctic coast, and has invested in dozens of icebreakers. The United States, meanwhile, has only one icebreaker, which is perhaps symbolic of its relative inattention to the Arctic.

Monday, 13 bipartisan senators asked the Biden administration to elevate Arctic affairs. In the letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the senators said the state department needs to take a stronger role in diplomacy, internal organization, and to develop a comprehensive Arctic strategy. The letter was signed by six Democrats, six Republicans and one Independent.

“It is imperative the Arctic receives the appropriate attention to promote American interests in a world where we compete for ideas, resources, and relationships,” the senators stated.

They asked that the state department’s lead person for the Arctic be promoted from the position of Arctic coordinator to ambassador level or higher, saying, “The U.S. is the only Arctic nation without a dedicated ambassador to the region. While we know other nations will always hear our perspective because of our international standing, it is important to demonstrate the sincerity our government holds in its engagement by ensuring the position is given a title commensurate with its responsibilities.”

The senators called the State department’s approach to Arctic affairs “disjointed,” and criticized communication across bureaus in the department.

They said the department has no comprehensive strategic plan, unlike the military.

“The Department of Defense (DOD) recently established a deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Arctic Affairs and Global Resilience. DOD released an Arctic Strategy in 2019 and each military service branch has subsequently released their own Arctic strategies. We understand no such strategic document exists for the Department of State. As the lead agency in international affairs, we ask that you ensure the Arctic receives the attention required of our nation’s leading agency,” said the senators.

The senators asked Blinken to report to them on “1) the future of the Arctic Coordinator position, 2) the status of a comprehensive and holistic Arctic strategy for the Department, and 3) how the Secretary is aligning or redistributing assets, resources, and personnel within the Department to address issues identified in a recent Inspector General’s report.”

The letter was signed by Senate Arctic Caucus co-chairs Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Angus King (I-ME), as well as Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Chris Coons (D-DE), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Susan Collins (R-ME), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Bill Hagerty (R-TN), and Kevin Cramer (R-ND).

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