By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As he contemplates dealing with crumbling shores, melting ice and other changes in the rapidly changing Arctic, Admiral Robert Papp looks back at the rough and tumble New York City of the 1970s for inspiration.
Papp, who became the first ever U.S. special representative for the Arctic in July, said he only needs to remember the first time he visited New York Harbor in 1970 for encouragement on tackling complicated issues. "It was disgusting," he said about the industrial and other waste that wrecked the city's shores.
Then the 1972 federal Clean Water Act began to turn things around and today the waterfront is an attraction to both locals and tourists. "We used to dump raw sewage into harbors, there's no way we'd consider doing that now," Papp said.
The Obama administration is about to take on a wider set of problems in the Arctic than city pollution. In May, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will kick off two years at the helm of the Arctic Council, which since 1996 has linked the United States, Russia, Canada and the Nordic countries, to coordinate policy in the world's air conditioner.
Papp said the United States will focus on three issues during its tenure as chair: Arctic ocean safety, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and exploring economic options for the people that live in the planet's North.
"We are going to have the microphone for two years," Papp told Reuters in an interview. "We are going to start a public relations campaign ... to articulate the reasons why people should be concerned about the Arctic."
Climate change is revising the way the world views the Arctic, creating new and far shorter sea lanes, and sparking interest in new oil drilling despite the region's rough conditions.
Kerry who is very focused on climate change, will take the reigns from his Canadian counterpart, who focused heavily on energy and commercial development.
Believing that slowing climate change in the Arctic can reduce global warming in the rest of the planet, Papp wants to slash Arctic emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and black carbon, or soot, emitted by heavy fuels used by ships and machinery, that scientists blame for absorbing solar rays and melting ice.
Making development safer and cleaner for energy and other companies eager to uncover the region's plentiful resources is also part of Papp's job.
Not everyone thinks the Arctic Council is the best forum to take on difficult issues like climate change. Analysts have already said the group has yet to complete two other initiatives on search and rescue and oil spills.
But Papp said it is important to set the bar high to bring solutions to difficult problems. "If we set the bar low ... you end up with a very mediocre product," he said. "I'm willing to address anything we can."
Among other issues, Papp said the forum should help mitigate the effects of climate change on residents of the Alaskan Arctic, including crumbling shores, melting permafrost and the flooding of traditional below-ground ice cellars where indigenous people store whale meat.
Papp acknowledged there are limits to how much Washington can hope to accomplish in the Arctic, however, saying the country will have to think hard about taking care of the basics in marine transport. The United States has not built a heavy icebreaker since the 1970s and only has one operational while Russia has up to 40. The ships can cost $1 billion each.
Still, any success in dealing with Arctic issues could lead to wider gains as the United States tries to secure a United Nations climate deal in Paris in 2015, a legacy-setting goal for Kerry and President Barack Obama.
Emerging powers India and China, two leading sources of global greenhouse gas emissions, earned places on the Arctic Council as observers last year. Papp said they could be encouraged to provide resources to help people adjust to the changing Arctic.
"If you want a seat at the table, perhaps you could provide resourcing as well as address some of the issues," he said. The Arctic is a region "that advertises for the rest of the world" how things can begin to change, Papp said.
(Additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici, Andrea Shalal and Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Tom Brown)