On September 19, 1996, eight days after the Arctic sea ice retreated to its lowest summertime level that year at 7.19 million square km (2.78 million square miles), representatives of the Arctic states signed the Ottawa Declaration that established the Arctic Council. This high-level intergovernmental forum – a rejuvenation of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy created in 1989 – gave the eight states and their Indigenous peoples a place to address the issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the region.
In many ways, the Arctic has changed dramatically in the 20 years since then. Climate change is no longer the distant threat it was once thought to be: In summer, the extent of sea ice is now 40 percent smaller than it was in 1996, opening the Northwest Passage with some regularity and allowing companies to extract oil from the Arctic seabed. Fish from more temperate regions have moved north and become so abundant in parts of the ocean that new fisheries have emerged.
For the Arctic Council, sustainable development and environmental protection remain at its core – and there continue to be pressing issues that need solutions.
Arctic Deeply talked with Julia Gourley, the U.S. Senior Arctic Official on the council, about its past, present and future.
Arctic Deeply: How has the Arctic Council changed in 20 years?
Julia Gourley: Twenty years ago the council was not a very well-known body. There wasn’t a huge participation by any of the Arctic states – and certainly not a lot of public following and interest.
Back then, we were able to hold all of our meetings, including ministerial meetings, in small Arctic venues. Now the forum deals with many more issues and there is more public attention. The venues for the larger meetings, like the Senior Arctic Officials (SAO) and ministerials, almost can’t be held in the Arctic very much, certainly not in the northern part of Alaska.
The participation has grown; there are many more observers now and many more in the queue. All that is to say that the program of work has grown a lot – from scientific and sustainable development and environmental protection work to include issues that are of concern for Indigenous people and a broader economic focus.
Arctic Deeply: You’ve served as the U.S. Senior Arctic Official since 2005. What differences have you seen in the impact of the work that you do?
Gourley: The work has made its way into other forums. The council did a big shipping assessment in 2009 that many in the International Maritime Organization – the regulatory body for shipping – looked at to get a greater understanding of shipping in the Arctic. The Arctic Human Development Report, which came out in 2004, certainly made its way into socioeconomic kinds of studies in universities and classes. The climate work that the council has done has also found a home in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and in some aspects of the global climate debate. The council’s work is quite a bit more influential now than it was in the beginning. A lot more of the world pays attention to it.
Arctic Deeply: What role has climate change played in shaping the work of the Arctic Council over those 20 years?
Gourley: The council has focused a good amount of attention in the last seven or eight years on the mitigation of black carbon. Black carbon is not in the Framework Convention on Climate Change, but it is known to be a very intensive climate-forcing agent in the Arctic. These soot particles end up in the Arctic and fall out of the sky in a relatively short period of time, accelerating the melting and thawing of the white surfaces that make up the cryosphere.
In the past, the council did these scientific assessments and that was it, but in the past several years there has been a focus on mitigation. During our chairmanship [the U.S. chairs the council for two years until 2017] we are trying to bring a lot of attention to resilience and adaptation for communities, as well as studying the resilience of the landscape and biodiversity of the Arctic.
We did this big shipping assessment back in 2009 because of climate change. There wouldn’t be any talk of shipping in the Arctic or about cruise ships going up there if it weren’t for this huge reduction of sea ice. The Indigenous people who live here also have a very big concern about food security, and that is making its way into the Sustainable Development Working Group.
Climate will continue to be one of the underpinnings of the work of the Arctic Council for a long time.
Arctic Deeply: As the Arctic has attracted more attention from non-Arctic states, it has grown to include observers from a number of countries and organizations. Has that shaped the discussion on Arctic issues?
Gourley: Some more than others, I would say. The state observers haven’t really had a huge influence on the work of the council. But the non-state ones definitely have. For example, the WWF [World Wide Fund for Nature] is a very influential NGO in the Arctic Council. It invests a lot of resources and contributes to the technical work that the working groups do. They focus on Indigenous issues in the Sustainable Development group; on shipping issues in the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment group; and on biodiversity in the Conservation of Flora and Fauna group. They cover the gamut.
In general, the NGOs contribute more to the work of the council because they can. The states are there, but they are not technical experts; still, they want to know what’s going on in that general region of the world.
Arctic Deeply: The Arctic is sometimes portrayed as an untouched wilderness devoid of people, or one preoccupied by military tensions, but the Arctic Council has a strong emphasis on people.
Gourley: The Arctic Council is one of the only entities of its kind with Indigenous people at the table with the states. They have a very strong voice and there is no other place for them to really explain what is going on in the Arctic.
They help the Arctic states in understanding what’s going on. They are the eyes and ears on the ground. We have a great need to understand the actual effects of what’s happening in the Arctic because it is happening so fast. None of the capitals are in the Arctic, so we foreign ministry people do not have as good an understanding of what is going on there – and how to shape policy around that – as the Indigenous people do.
Arctic Deeply: Some scholars have suggested the council needs to change its structure, methods and participants, such as including military security as one of the issues it works on. What are your thoughts on this?
Gourley: I think it would be a big mistake to bring in military security. Everyone is quite happy with the fact that it is explicitly carved out of the Arctic Council’s mandate. If we brought military security into the council, it would overwhelm it.
There are already two security forums strictly devoted to the Arctic. One is the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable that the U.S. created; the other is the Northern Chiefs of Defense that Canada created. Together they take care of any kinds of military discussion that need to happen in those parts of the world.
We don’t want to bring military security into our deliberations because it would completely change the dynamic and it might take the focus off biodiversity and Indigenous people and off shipping.
Arctic Deeply: One can reasonably expect that the attention paid to the region will only increase. What will top discussions at the Arctic Council for the next 10 years?
Gourley: Everyone is going to be focusing on climate and keeping a close eye on the people in the Arctic and making sure their needs are met. I also think the council will continue to press the coast guards to keep exercising the two binding agreements that we have on oil spill response and search and rescue. Exercising those two agreements becomes more important every day, with more human activity.
The White House Arctic Science Ministerial [which meets for the first time on September 28] will have a focus on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education. While that is not an Arctic Council event, the council did give life to something called the University of Arctic a number of years ago. I think education will be a big thrust in the next 10 years, for sure.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.