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A look at the Arctic Council: What it does, who’s involved, and plans for the future

From melting sea ice to starving, isolated polar bears, it’s no secret that global warming has taken a heavy toll in the Arctic. But who’s in charge of protecting these vulnerable, northern lands and oceans?

When was it founded?

The Arctic Council was founded in 1996 in Ottawa, Canada. 

What is the Arctic Council?

The Arctic Council promotes collaborative environmental protection, sustainable development, research and monitoring in the north. The world’s eight Arctic states make up the council, and they rotate leadership every two years. 

These Arctic states encompass Norway, Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Russia, Sweden and the United States. The Arctic Council promotes cooperation, coordination and unified decision-making among these territories, as well as observer nations (China, Japan, India, South Korea) and Indigenous communities. 

The council can’t implement policies directly. Instead, the forum recommends changes that delegates bring back to their own countries. Key issues include pollution, industrial development and climate change. 

The end of Canadian chairmanship

The ninth Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council in Iqaluit, Nunavut last weekend marked the end of Canada’s Arctic Council Chairmanship. Leona Aglukkaq, an Inuk from Nunavut, began leading the forum in 2013. Aglukkaq’s main focus was development for the people of the North. Aglukkaq was keen on shipping, resource development and trade within the Arctic, as melting ice continues to reveal hidden mineral deposits, oil and gas. 

Aglukkaq also established a new, international business forum: the Arctic Economic Council. The council is operated by northern businesses with the common goal of fuelling local development. But much larger companies currently dominate the council; such as Russian oil giant Rosneft.

In an open statement last September, Greenpeace Canada said the following:  “Inviting the vice-president of Rosneft, the oil company with the worst environmental record ever and responsible for more than 2,700 oil spills per year, to the Arctic Economic Council to discuss sustainable development is an outright contradiction.” 

Greenpeace Canada also said Canada’s focus on economic development has come at a price. That price was ignoring climate-change related issues by means of fracking, seismic testing and giving too much power to the world’s big oil companies.  

The beginning of American chairmanship

The U.S. Secretary of State and long-time climate change advocate, John Kerry, will chair the Arctic Council for the 2015-2017 term. 

Retired American coast guard, Adm. Robert J. Papp, Jr. was also recently appointed as the U.S. Special Representative of the Arctic Council. Papp already announced that the council would dramatically change its focus under his leadership. Papp promises his council will prioritize climate change issues and help protect the rapidly melting Arctic. 

A glance at what’s to come under Kerry and Papp’s Leadership

The United States plans to refocus the council’s efforts to combat climate change and safeguard the Arctic Ocean. 

The American leaders want to start by reducing black carbon emissions – a major source of global warming. The first step is to reduce the northern people’s dependence on diesel powered vehicles and generators in northern countries, Papp said at the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs last December. 

Regulating shipping traffic through the Arctic Ocean is also on the American agenda. The Arctic Ocean is the shallowest in the world (about 4,000 feet deep in most places). As oil shipping increases, so does the potential for ships to hit the shallow bottom and cause devastating spills.  

The United States also vowed not to abandon Canada’s economic focus entirely. Papp identified a third goal of improving the living and economic conditions for Arctic people. 

“The Arctic region is a biologically diverse place where people, animals and plants have thrived for thousands of years,” Papp said. “Our goal is to protect the environment for the people who live there and to conserve natural resources in the face of ever-expanding human activity that will surely have impacts.”