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U.S. Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel fields questions at a news conference at the Halifax International Security Forum in Halifax on Friday, Nov. 22, 2013.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is concerned about climate change and the melting Arctic, an unexpected worry for the man who controls the most lethal arsenal of weapons in the world.

The senior Obama administration official was speaking in Halifax on Friday, using his keynote address to the Halifax International Security Forum to deliver a strong message about climate change, and to launch his department's eight-point Arctic strategy, which includes ensuring security of the region, protecting its environment and working together in the area with other nations.

Climate change, Mr. Hagel said, does not directly cause conflict "but it can significantly add to the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty and conflict." He added that food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources and more severe natural disasters "all place additional burdens on economies, society and institutions around the world."

The Arctic is "the first new frontier of nautical exploration since the days of Ericson, Columbus and Magellan," said the Nebraska Republican, serving in a Democratic administration. "Throughout human history, mankind has raced to discover the next frontier. And time after time, discovery was swiftly followed by conflict. We cannot erase this history, but we can assure that history does not repeat itself in the Arctic."

Mr. Hagel's officials say he chose this venue to unveil the policy because Canada is the chair of the circumpolar, eight-nation Arctic Council, and he feels strongly about climate change and environmental impact.

Three senior Harper ministers – Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Justice Minister Peter MacKay – sat in the audience. The Harper government has been widely criticized for its record on climate change, but is very much interested in the Arctic region, having first outlined its strategy in the 2005-06 federal campaign.

This is the fifth year for the forum, which is billed as the security equivalent of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Friday was the first day of the three-day gathering of 300 military and security experts, academics, politicians and government officials.

"Climate change is shifting the landscape in the Arctic more rapidly than anywhere else in the world," Mr. Hagel said. "Transforming what is a frozen desert into an evolving, navigable ocean, giving rise to unprecedented human activity."

He said traffic in the northern sea route is expected to increase "tenfold this year compared to last year."

"Over the long term, as global warming accelerates, Arctic ice melt will lead to a sea ice rise that will likely threaten coastal populations around the world," he said.

He warned, too, about possible tensions, noting that the Arctic could provide a new source of energy as fossil fuel demand increases from countries such as China, Brazil and India. The region, he said, may have "as much as a quarter of the planet's undiscovered oil and gas," and interest among countries to explore those reserves could "heighten tensions over other issues."

"History is a recording of the past," Mr. Hagel said. "It has recorded the rise of great powers, the fall of empires and technological revolutions that have transformed the way people communicate, travel, trade, fight wars and meet new threats and opportunities. But the challenge of global climate change, while not new to history, is new to the modern world."

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