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United States takes charge of the Arctic Council, prioritizes the environment

Ministers had the opportunity to meet with local Inuit residents during the Ministerial Meeting in Iqaluit last weekend . John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State (new chair of the Arctic Council), Canadian Minister of the Environment Leona Aglukkaq (former chair of the Arctic Council) and Robert Nicholson, Minister of Foreign Affairs Canada joined the photo.

The United States has big changes in store for the Arctic Council over the next two years, which will largely focus on climate change.

American Secretary of State John Kerry took the reigns of the Arctic Council from Canadian Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq last weekend. The exchange took place at the ninth Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council in Iqaluit, Canada.

During its two-year chairmanship, Canada focused largely on economic development in the Arctic. The United States will switch tracks.

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

The new leader highlighted the United States’ plans for the Arctic in his remarks at the April 24 meeting, “One of the biggest challenges everybody has talked about today is climate change,” he said. “The numbers are alarming, and that’s putting it mildly.”

Kerry spoke to representatives of the Arctic Council, as well as leaders of Indigenous Arctic Peoples, about how the resilience of Arctic ecosystems and communities is in jeopardy. The Arctic temperatures are increasing at more than twice the rate of the global average, and combined with melting sea ice, these observations have been unprecedented in the last 1,500 years, he said.   

The American plan to fight climate change

The United States chairmanship will tackle these environmental issues by reducing black carbon and greenhouse gases such as methane. Black carbon comes from the soot of wood-burning stoves, diesel engines and heavy fuel use in shipping vessels, while methane is a potent greenhouse gas that results from melting permafrost.

Both are major sources of global warming.

The first step is to reduce the northern people’s dependence on diesel powered vehicles and generators in northern countries, U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr. said at the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs last December. 

The United States also intends to regulate shipping traffic in the Arctic Ocean. The Arctic Ocean is the shallowest in the world. As oil shipping increases, so does the potential for ships to hit the bottom and cause devastating spills.  

“The Arctic Council can do more on climate change,” Kerry said. “And we all know the clock is ticking and we actually don’t have a lot of time to waste.”

Former Arctic Council leader Leona Aglukkaq passes on the Arctic Council gavel to new United States chairman, John Kerry.

The Iqaluit Declaration 2015

Representatives of the Arctic Council, including the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark (with Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Sweden and Russia, also signed the Iqaluit Declaration 2015 at the Ministerial Meeting last weekend.

The signed document outlines responsibilities for the United States as future leader of the Arctic Council and reaffirms each country’s commitment to peace in the Arctic, sustainable development, reducing climate risks and assuring the rights and values of Indigenous peoples. 

The declaration also concludes Canada’s accomplishments throughout its two-year chairmanship, from 2013-2015. Kerry praised Canada’s work at the Ministerial Meeting, saying “the United States very much supports the effort led by Canada to stand up the Arctic Economic Council which will help businesses to invest and help Arctic communities to prosper.” 

The Arctic Economic Council is an international forum 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.

Backlash from Greenpeace over Canada’s Arctic Economic Council

Greenpeace criticized Canada’s efforts to establish the Arctic Economic Council.  

“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 said in an open statement last September.  

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 through the creation of the Arctic Economic Council, Greenpeace said.    

United States focused on the future

But the United States vowed not to abandon Canada’s economic focus. The United States will focus on three broad, interconnected projects, including climate change, ocean safety and the economy.

“The theme of our chairmanship is ‘One Arctic,’” Kerry said, “which embodies our belief that the entire world – not only the Arctic, not only the eight here plus, but the entire world shares a responsibility to protect, to respect, to nurture, and to promote the region.”