Climate Change in the US Arctic: A Growing Concern for Homeland Defense?

By Agata Lavorio

Is climate change shaping U.S. Arctic posture? For much of its modern history, the U.S. has been considered a reluctant Arctic state, given its limited interest in the High North. In 2015, a survey by the Arctic Studio conducted in the U.S. found a greater affinity among Americans for the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, and the Pacific than the Arctic. Anecdotes such as the Seward’s icebox, or the answer sent by President Taft to the discoverer of the North Pole, Robert Peary (“I do not know exactly what I could do with it”), or the “Forgotten War” fought in the Aleutians, are usually quoted as proof of the minimalist US posture towards the Arctic.

For centuries, the remoteness and inhospitable nature of the Arctic (the “inaccessible bulwark” according to British geographer Halford Mackinder in the 1940s) has granted the U.S. continental defense in the Northern hemisphere, and has represented a bulwark in geopolitical planning. Today, this assumption is melting away.

Climate change is presenting totally new geostrategic scenarios in the Arctic. On the basis of a review of major defense documents, it can be argued that climate change is acting not only as a “threat multiplier” – a successful term coined by Sherri Goodman, former U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Environmental Security) and (full disclosure) Senior Strageist at the Center for Climate and Security – but also as a growing concern for homeland defense.

Climate change in the Arctic is increasing the vulnerability of what was once conceived a constant in geopolitical planning. This is demonstrated, for example, by the last Arctic Strategy by the Department of Defense (2019), and in particular by recent testimony from NORTHCOM and NORAD Commander, Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy. Both examples address a new frontline of homeland defense made by the opening of a new avenue of approach to the continent.

Such a concern represents a notable change to the traditional American perspective on the Arctic and is the result of an intensive journey dating back to the 1990s by the military (initially the Navy) and government officials particularly attentive to the changes that the Arctic environment was undergoing. Thanks to this cooperation, it was acknowledged that climate change was affecting all levels of strategy – from naval operations, to military interventions abroad, from major powers’ competition to the survival of fundamental military assets and installations themselves. The Arctic is now particularly vulnerable and the melting of the ice cap poses a further concern over the physical erosion of national borders, aggravated by competition over resources and spill-over effects.

A more detailed analysis (based mostly on sources retrieved here at the Center) is presented in this paper I recently published in The International Spectator.


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