As awareness about the implications about Arctic climate change has grown, so has interest in the region as a potential reservoir of oil, gas and other resources.
When the Arctic Council was formed in 1996, it didn’t need a large venue to hold its meetings. The recent Ministerial meeting at the end of the two-year U.S. Chairmanship was held in a large community centre in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Seven new observers were welcomed to the growing Arctic Council ‘family’, bringing the total to 39 governments, NGOs, research institutions and other bodies which attend this consultative body’s biannual Senior Arctic Officials meetings or participate in its working groups.
The Arctic Council is a political forum that has been criticized in the last few years for being too slow to respond to rapid change taking place in the Arctic environment. On the other hand, it has created a body of knowledge about those changes which has influenced global processes including international treaties to reduce on persistent organic pollutants and mercury.
In Fairbanks, foreign ministers of the eight Arctic States signed the council’s third binding agreement on “Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation”. The chair of the Arctic Council now moves to Finland for the next two years.
The final product of each chairmanship is a declaration, which records the progress made over the previous two years and conveys the collective position of this consensus based body. The Fairbanks Declaration is the Arctic Council’s 10th declaration. Among other things, the foreign ministers “Note again that the Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the global average….”
Collectively, the eight Arctic states are responsible for approximately one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Under the Paris Agreement, each country has pledged to reduce its emissions to keep the global average temperature increase under 2 degrees Celsius.
It’s a race against time that calls to mind previous statements, particularly the Reykjavik Declaration of 2004 issued with the Arctic Climate Change Assessment (ACIA) report. The declaration noted “with concern the impacts documented by the ACIA that are already felt throughout the region. Climate change and other stressors present a range of challenges for Arctic residents, including indigenous peoples, as well as risks to Arctic species and ecosystems….”
Many of the indicators of change identified in the ACIA were quickly surpassed. For example, the report relied on models that calculated that the Arctic would be ice free in the summer by 2070-2100. The following year, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NISDC) reported that lowest extent of Arctic sea ice in the summer (5.32 million square kilometres) since satellite observations began in the late 1970s.
Last September NISDC reported that sea ice extent was more than a million square kilometres smaller at 4.14 million square kilometers. This level was “tied with 2007 as the second lowest extent on record… Satellite data show extensive areas of open water in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, and in the Laptev and East Siberian seas.” More recent calculations see the Arctic being ice free in the coming decade.
The Fairbanks meeting also took place amidst speculation on whether or not the United States, under the new Trump Administration, would keep its international commitments, including remaining in the Paris climate change agreement. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who chaired the Arctic Council meeting, indicated the U.S. Government was “not going to rush” into a decision.
The fact that the U.S. signed the Arctic Council Declaration was seen as a positive sign by some observers that the world’s most powerful nation will continue to be engaged in Arctic issues. However, there was never much indication that it wouldn’t. While the Arctic Council is a political body without a treaty, it has been hailed as a good example of “soft law”. It has been successful in keeping other geopolitical issues off the table, and the Russian Federation remains an active participant.
The Arctic Council released a number of important reports during the U.S. tenure, including the “Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic” report (see our previous news story on this topic) which emphasized the urgent situation raised by the decline in Arctic ice and snow cover.
The Fairbanks declaration notes “the entry into force of the Paris agreement on climate change and its implementation, and [reiterates] the need for global action to reduce both long-lived greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants.”
The Arctic Council can choose to take action on climate change, such as joining the global effort to reduce Short Lived Climate Forcers. More often it urges member states to take action on climate change. It's assessments and reports consistently point to the fact that what is happening in the Arctic is an urgent global concern. In the end, it is the Arctic states, including Russia, the US, Canada and Norway, that need to fulfill their commitments to the reduce their greenhouse gas emissions if there is any hope of slowing the rate of change in this fragile region.