Arctic Nations Debate Future

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is among the dignitaries convening in Sweden today for the biennial meeting of the Arctic Council – an eight-nation gathering that is attracting greater global interest as a warming Arctic presents challenges and opportunities.

Founded in 1996, the Council’s membership comprises the eight nations – the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland – with Arctic territory. But in a sign that the rest of the world is increasingly focused on the planet’s northernmost realm, the Council will this year be considering applications for observer status from 14 governmental and non-governmental entities, including China, India, the European Union, and Greenpeace.

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The application by China has gained particular attention, as the world’s most populous nation seeks a greater foothold in the region. Last year, a Chinese icebreaker crossed from the Pacific to the Barents Sea via the Northern Sea Route above Russia, before returning from Iceland to the Bering Strait across the North Pole. And last month Beijing signed a free trade deal with Iceland.

The immediate impact of a Chinese observer status on the Council – which already boasts Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Poland as observers – would be minimal. China, along with any other admitted observers, would be able to attend all meetings but not participate in high-level ministerial conferences. However, the significance of the decision (which requires unanimity among the Council’s members) is in the context of a broader consideration: whether the future of the Arctic is primarily a concern of Arctic nations, or one that should be opened up to broader international cooperation and consultation.

The Nordic nations on the Council are reportedly the strongest supporters of China’s application and of “internationalizing” the Arctic. Canada and Russia are said to be opposed, a stance that reflects previous statements and actions that appear to support narrower, more nationalistic approaches to responding to changes in the region.

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For example, in 2007, Russian submarines deposited flags on the seabed under the North Pole, symbolically staking the country’s claim to billions of dollars of oil and gas reserves that may lie beneath the seafloor and that will likely become more accessible as sea ice retreats due to global warming. And while countries such as the United States eye the opening up of the Northwest Passage – again due to sea ice loss – as the emergence of a new international sea route between Atlantic and Pacific, Canada insists that it has full sovereignty over the waterway and thereby has authority to assert complete control over all activity in that specific area.

Last week, in advance of the Council meeting, the White House released a “National Strategy for the Arctic Region,” which laid out the U.S. Administration’s policy priorities as “advancing our security interests, pursuing responsible Arctic region stewardship, and strengthening our international cooperation … in a manner that: safeguards peace and stability in the region, utilizes the best available information for decisions, emphasizes the use of innovative arrangements, and underscores the importance of consulting and coordinating with Alaskan Native communities.” All of which sounds fine and dandy; but the strategy is short on specifics as to how any of these goals might be achieved.

In the view of Mihaela David, a fellow at The Arctic Institute in Washington, DC., the strategy signals “to U.S. citizens, other Arctic states, and the international community that the U.S. acknowledges its roles and responsibilities in the Arctic.” But, David adds, it “does not lay out specific initiatives or projects that might be pursued to achieve the various objectives identified within … No budget information is included, nor a timeline for implementation.”

Furthermore, as Andrew Freedman notes in a blog at Climate Central, the strategy also leaves unexplained how the U.S. plans to reconcile conflicting interests.

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On the one hand, writes Freedman, the United States “is seeking to take advantage of new shipping routes and oil and gas reserves made accessible by the precipitous loss of sea ice.” But, he adds, ”those activities would add more global warming pollution, which would do further harm to the Arctic environment, and they also pose the risk of oil spills and other accidents.”

In that sense, the White House document perhaps reflects a broader issue among Arctic nations and those who aspire to have a say in the region’s future: the Arctic is changing, and those countries want to respond to those changes – ideally in a way that benefits themselves politically and financially. But the changes are occurring so rapidly, and the future is so uncertain, that the exact nature of those responses remains a moving target.

The Arctic Council meeting will be discussing some concrete topics, such as how national authorities should co-operate and act in case of oil spills in the region – a matter that, as Freedman observed, may prove to be of increasing import as more of the Arctic Ocean becomes open to drilling and shipping. But a statement to the meeting from a coalition of Arctic aboriginals has demanded a halt to offshore drilling in Arctic waters, a position echoed by would-be observer Greenpeace, which argues that, instead of responding to climate change by conducting more fossil fuel extraction, nations should establish a global sanctuary, free from drilling and fishing, around the North Pole, and take action to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing rapid Arctic change in the first place.

IMAGE: Hong Kong flagged Nordic Barents carrying 40,000 tonnes of iron ore leaves Kirkenes in the north of Norway on route to China via the Arctic Northeast passage on September 4, 2010. (Helge Sterk/AFP/Getty Images)

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