Today, federal scientists confirmed that for the first time in millions of years, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had reached 400 parts per million. The pre-industrial level was 280 ppm, and the amount that top climatologists say is advisable for maintaining a stable environment is 350 ppm. The new carbon concentration signals that planetary warming will continue to accelerate—and that the rapidly melting Arctic will continue to thaw.
“It symbolizes that so far we have failed miserably in tackling this problem,” Pieter P. Tans, who runs the chief carbon-monitoring program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told The New York Times, in a front-page story headlined "Carbon Dioxide Level Is at Highest in Human History."
At about the same time that NOAA released its numbers, the White House—which has thus far not commented on the carbon milestone—published a press release called "Protecting Our Interests in the Arctic." The release heralds the administration's newly forged National Strategy for the Arctic Region, a document that contains the recommendations of military advisers, scientists, and policy analysts on how to cope with and exploit a slushier Arctic.
Last week, a group had convened for an "emergency" meeting at the White House, and this appears to be the policy document that was forged as a result. Scientists warn that we may see "ice-free summers" in the Arctic within the decade—an atmosphere that contains 400 ppm of CO2 all but ensures it's going to stay that way.
According to the new National Strategy for the Arctic Region, the number one priority is to "Advance United States Security Interests." The directive reads as follows: "We will enable our vessels and aircraft to operate, consistent with international law, through, under, and over the airspace and waters of the Arctic, support lawful commerce ... and intelligently evolve our Arctic infrastructure and capabilities, including ice-capable platforms as needed."
The initiative goes on to broadly define national security interests in the north: "U.S. security in the Arctic encompasses a broad spectrum of activities, ranging from those supporting safe commercial and scientific operations to national defense."
This is clearly a directive to expand military operations throughout the Arctic: new infrastructure, more intelligence, an expanded presence in the region. The administration no doubt deems this necessary because, as the Arctic ice melts, there's going to be a headlong multi-national rush to harvest its resources and clear lucrative shipping routes.
The strategy document notes that "dense, multi-year ice is giving way to thin layers of seasonal ice, making more of the region navigable year-round. Scientific estimates of technically recoverable conventional oil and gas resources north of the Arctic Circle total approximately 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas deposits, as well as vast quantities of mineral resources, including rare earth elements, iron ore, and nickel. These estimates have inspired fresh ideas for commercial initiatives and infrastructure development in the region."
It also notes the possibility of securing a Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage.
A document such as this one will clearly be necessary in the coming years, as the geopolitical forces draw further into tension around the Arctic. But it is telling that on the same day that carbon dioxide levels reach historic, human-fueled highs, the Obama administration releases a plan not to cope with rising sea levels, more frequent drought, and increased vulnerability to extreme weather. Instead, we get a plan to send the military north, to extract more oil, and to pursue more "commercial initiatives."
In other words, it's the same strategy that melted the Arctic in the first place.