The View from the Helm of the Arctic Council

Leadership at the Arctic Council rotates among its members every two years. In April, Canada passed the chairmanship to the United States. With the new year underway, we take a look back at what the Arctic Council has accomplished since the U.S. took over the role.

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

When the U.S. took lead of the Arctic Council in April, it chose to focus on three objectives during its chairmanship: improving the well-being of Arctic communities, bolstering marine stewardship in the Arctic Ocean and addressing the impacts of climate change.

While the U.S. has made some progress in each of these areas already, it still has some ways to go before it can say it left behind a legacy when it hands the chairmanship to Finland in spring 2017.

“They have been more successful in linking Arctic and global policy agendas, especially on climate change,” said Kathrin Keil, Europe director at The Arctic Institute and a project scientist at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany.

The U.S. plan is a determined one. It intends to bring renewable energy technology to remote Arctic communities, increase telecommunications infrastructure, reduce black carbon output, support suicide prevention, work towards a network of marine protected areas and prepare those undertaking search and rescue operations.

“The U.S. agenda was ambitious, visionary, doable and appropriate given the scale of things we’re facing in the Arctic,” said Lisa Speer, director of the International Ocean Program at the Natural Resources Defence Council, a nonprofit international environmental advocacy group. “They’ve come a long way, but they still have a long way to go.”

Future Observers

David Balton, a U.S. diplomat who chairs the Arctic Council’s Senior Arctic Officials – the high-level representatives from the eight member nations that form the Council – said that the Council was having “some success” moving the agenda forward.

During the first meeting of its Senior Arctic Officials in Anchorage in October 2015, the Arctic Council set aside time to hear from the council’s observers, including a discussion on how they might engage with the Arctic Council on specific projects, such as how to reduce black carbon in the Arctic and to protect flyways for migratory birds.

The Arctic states would like to reduce black carbon in the region, but more than half the emissions of black carbon and methane that are deposited in the Arctic come from outside the Arctic. “If we’re going to be successful at reducing these, we’ll need cooperation from the non-Arctic states,” said Balton.

Other countries are seeking status as observers to the Arctic Council, including the European Union. Canada had previously opposed the EU’s bid to become an Arctic Council observer after a row over its import ban on seal furs, skin and meat. In May 2015, the council postponed observer status applications for two years.

Now Russia is likely to veto an EU application, said Keil. “Since there is unanimity rule in the Council, chairs are unlikely to put an issue to a vote that does not have the backing of all members, thus the observer issue stays off the agenda.”

Sea Changes

The Arctic Ocean – and the conservation of marine species – is another issue getting attention with the U.S. at the helm.

The U.S. has said it will expand the reach of the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network to monitor the changing chemistry of the Arctic Ocean. Ocean acidification can interfere with the ability of organisms – often at the base of the food web – to form shells. Those changes are occurring faster in colder waters.

It also hopes to move forward with a network of marine protected areas. Of the Arctic nations, Russia leads in the creation of marine protected areas. “The progress on that has been slow to get going, but it is getting going,” said Speer. “A network of protected areas would be a high-visibility legacy for the U.S. chairmanship, and we hope that they can really put some muscle behind something like that.”

The U.S. State Department recently hosted talks with Arctic and non-Arctic nations to keep the central Arctic Ocean closed to fishing until scientists have had more time to take stock of the ecosystem and how it is being affected by climate change. The talks weren’t strictly part of the Arctic Council, but reflected the chair’s ambition. It hoped to bring major fishing nations, including China, Korea, Japan, Iceland and the EU, into discussions.

“We’re trying to get a system into place in this last part of the ocean that hasn’t been entered yet. Do the science first, and then come up with the management rules before everyone starts fishing,” said Scott Highleyman, a representative of the environmental arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts and a member of the U.S. delegation.

The council has also established a plan for cooperating on preventing oil pollution in Arctic marine areas. With the trend towards increased maritime activity in several Arctic regions, states must be prepared to provide for search and rescue operations, oil spill response and navigational aid.

“I see oil spills as a pretty big threat, even from shipping traffic. And there are lots of climate change issues that are occurring on the shoreline that can lead to oil spills,” said Amy Merten, the chair of the Arctic Council’s working group on emergency prevention, preparedness and response. Communities often have their oil tanks close to shorelines that are now eroding as permafrost thaws and waves become more destructive. “It wouldn’t be a huge spill, but it would be an impact for the local community,” said Merten.

Lasting Impression

Each Arctic Council chairmanship lasts for two years, a short timeframe to carry out studies, produce guidelines, find funding and implement policy. The Arctic Council is now juggling about 80 projects, including several that were started under previous chairmanships, said Keil.

“What will be the lasting impact of the U.S. chairmanship, especially in its own Arctic region? Alaska has been largely off the radar in [Washington, D.C.] before the chairmanship,” said Keil, who warned that Alaska could become a peripheral issue in D.C. again. “Given the challenges in Alaska – and for other Arctic regions – long-term planning and sustainable social, environmental and economic programs are needed – and that needs more than a two-year focus and commitment.”

Top image: The U.S. hosted its first meeting of the Senior Arctic Officials of the Arctic Council in Anchorage in October 2015. It holds the chairmanship until spring 2017. (Flickr/Paxson Woelber)

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