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Arctic Council to Stay Course on Climate Change After U.S. Election

The U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council concludes in spring 2017. Will its focus on climate change mitigation and adaptation be transformed with the election of a new U.S. president next week?

Written by Rachel Ansley Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
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Canada passed the Arctic Council chairmanship to the United States in April 2015.Arctic Council, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Despite the opposing positions on climate change adopted by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, a senior U.S. official has expressed confidence that the United States’ efforts to curb the effects of global warming over the course of its chairmanship of the Arctic Council will transcend the political transition in Washington.

Regardless of the outcome of the presidential election on November 8, “the current and existing work programs [of the Arctic Council] will continue moving forward until we hand it over to Finland,” said Melanie Nakagawa, deputy assistant secretary for energy transformation at the State Department’s Bureau of Energy. Finland will assume the chairmanship of the Arctic Council when the U.S. tenure ends in the spring of 2017. Nakagawa noted that the U.S. work on the Arctic Council “is an area that we have seen incredible bipartisan support for.”

However, the two leading U.S. presidential candidates have taken opposing stances toward U.S. policy on climate change. Clinton, the Democratic nominee, has advocated a plan for addressing the issues of climate change and renewable energy. On October 11, former vice president Al Gore joined her at a rally to discuss the importance of the issue. By contrast, Trump, the Republican nominee, has infamously dubbed climate change a “hoax,” and has pledged to unravel the U.S. commitment to the Paris agreement to cut emissions, which is due to enter into force in November.

“We have one candidate who thinks climate change is a hoax, who says he will cancel the Paris deal; another candidate says that this is a pressing global challenge, and we need ambitious action to address it, both internationally and domestically,” said Cathleen Kelly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Nakagawa and Kelly joined Mark Brzezinski, executive director of the U.S. government Arctic Executive Steering Committee, at the Atlantic Council on October 17 to discuss what the United States has achieved as chairman of the Arctic Council, and what remains to be done before Finland takes over. Focusing on the importance of international cooperation and coordinated efforts to stem the causes of climate change, Kelly said that “the next president will have to play a leading role, as President [Barack] Obama has done, in the international arena to ensure continued global progress on curbing climate change.”

Paula Dobriansky, a senior fellow for the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and former undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs, moderated the discussion.

Paula Dobriansky (far left), a senior fellow for the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, moderated a discussion with Mark Brzezinski, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Executive Steering Committee; Melanie Nakagawa, deputy assistant secretary for energy transformation at the State Department’s Bureau of Energy; and Cathleen Kelly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. (Atlantic Council)

Paula Dobriansky (far left), a senior fellow for the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, moderated a discussion with Mark Brzezinski, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Executive Steering Committee; Melanie Nakagawa, deputy assistant secretary for energy transformation at the State Department’s Bureau of Energy; and Cathleen Kelly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. (Atlantic Council)

In its role as chairman of the Arctic Council, the United States has set forth and worked on an ambitious program of international collaboration based on immediate action to mitigate the threat of climate change in the Arctic, according to Brzezinski. Due to the escalation of global warming, “it became incumbent on us [the United States] to truly advance pan-Arctic science as much as possible,” he said. Consequently, Brzezinski said, “you see an ascending interest around the world on the topic of Arctic science, and an ascending participation.”

A renewed commitment to cooperation was demonstrated at the White House Arctic Science Ministerial in Washington on September 28. According to Brzezinski, this ministerial allowed the United States to leverage the platform of the White House to create a forum for international collaboration and bring together countries that have made a serious commitment to involvement and intervention when it comes to climate change. “Internationally, we’re working very closely with our global partners to achieve a common Arctic interest,” said Nakagawa. Twenty-five nations, including Russia, were represented at the ministerial.

The ministerial produced a high-level joint statement on the future of the Arctic and a path forward for future collaboration among the nations in attendance focused on Arctic science. Additionally, the White House published a fact sheet with tangible commitments from all 25 nations to bring new resources and greater involvement to the work of the Arctic Council. “We have a unity of purpose … and a shared sense of the challenge and the opportunity,” said Brzezinski.

The Obama administration has also placed a great emphasis on renewable energy solutions in the Arctic. Acting as a leader in the realm of clean energy mitigation of climate change, the United States has focused on energy diplomacy to “ensure environmentally responsible management of energy resources and development of resources writ large in the region,” said Nakagawa.

However, U.S. focus lies to the south as well. “The U.S. chairmanship is really focused on all Arctic issues, not just in the Arctic region per se, but looking south,” Nakagawa said. Global warming in the Arctic will have an outsized impact on countries around the world, she said. “The Arctic is really warming and melting at an unprecedented rate that really has absolutely dire consequences for people not only in the region but around the globe,” Kelly said.

Climate change acts as a pressing threat multiplier in unstable regions around the world, Kelly said. For example, the Greenland ice sheet is melting at an unprecedented rate; soon it will reach a point where melting is irreversible. Kelly said that “if the Greenland ice sheet melts … that’s a 23ft [7m] sea level rise that we will experience,” which will have drastic consequences for people living in coastal areas. Rising sea levels and irregular weather patterns lead to increasing levels of migration and food instability. These considerations augment threats around the world that play into foreign policy, and “the next president is going to have to take this into account,” Kelly said.

A crucial step to slowing the progress of climate change is the implementation of the Paris agreement, which calls for emission reduction commitments from 55 countries that account for 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The agreement will enter into force November 4. This deal would require participating governments to act on set reduction goals and measure progress. Kelly called for a “solid and transparent accountability system” from the countries involved. Marrakech will host a conference on climate change for participating countries in November.

With regard to U.S. commitments to the Paris agreement, “that’s a challenge that not only this administration, but the next administration, is going to have to deal with,” Kelly said. However, U.S. involvement may depend on the outcome of the election.

Though the Arctic Council focuses on collaborative processes, “the Arctic is simultaneously a strategic challenge and a human challenge,” said Brzezinski. Russian aggression in other parts of the world has raised concerns as to the Kremlin’s role in the work of the Arctic Council. However, Brzezinski said, “it is the administration’s policy to continue to collaborate with Russia on Arctic science and research.”

Contending that Russia is a key partner and stakeholder in the work of the council, Brzezinski said Moscow was represented at a high level at the ministerial, and “it is an example of collaboration that we can invoke elsewhere.” He added, “The Arctic is a zone of peaceful collaboration, of cooperation.”

With regard to the threat of militarization of the Arctic, Brzezinski said that “no country is preponderant in the Arctic … that is what underpins [the Arctic Council].” He focused on positive collaboration rather than defensive measures.

According to Dobriansky, there is a general sentiment that “when there are crises and situations you have to work together.” However, in the event of Russian aggression, NATO would handle the issue of Arctic security, she said.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect those of Arctic Deeply.

This article originally appeared on the Atlantic Council blog and is republished here with permission.

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