Twenty years does not really seem like a long time. But when it comes to climate change in the Arctic, the last 20 years have brought more change than centuries gone by.
After the warmest winter in the Arctic since records began, the sea ice has declined to its second-lowest level ever. And the “second-lowest” tends to divert attention from the fact that the sea ice cover has dwindled to nearly 2.56m sq km less than the 1979 to 2000 average. That’s the size of Alaska and Texas combined.
So the Arctic Council is celebrating its twentieth birthday at a time when concern over the impacts of planetary warming on the high north could hardly be greater.
I had the chance to interview Julia Gourley, the US Senior Arctic Official on the telephone ahead of the birthday. The US, of course, currently holds the two-year chairmanship of the body. I asked her how the Council had changed over the past 20 years.
“In the early days the Arctic state focused almost exclusively on environmental protection and science issues. But over the 20 years the countries have shifted the focus a bit. Certainly we still spend a lot of time trying to understand the environmental change that’s been going on. We spend much more time now on sustainable development issues, which in the Council generally refer to issues that affect the people of the Arctic, in particular the indigenous people. We’ve learned a lot in 20 years about the people who live there and the challenges they face.”
And those challenges are increasing all the time, especially because of the rapid pace of climate change.
Melting ice, easier access
The increase in human activity, as remote Arctic regions become more easily accessible has turned protecting the region into a whole new ball game. Gourley cites cruise ships, offshore oil and gas development , fishing and shipping as issues which have moved up the agenda.
Clearly, this means more work for the Arctic Council – and has also brought a lot more global interest in the region:
“We have 32 observer entities now, 12 of whom are countries. There are many more in the queue that are seeking observer status. What happens in the Arctic affects the entire planet, so countries all over the world are becoming interested in the region”.
With a big player like China taking a huge interest in the Arctic and looking to establish ports and secure its own access to the region, and political tensions between some of the Council members, such as Russia and the EU or the USA itself, the shadow of conflict always seem to be lurking in the background. Gourley is keen to play this aspect down. She stresses the key role of the Council in keeping the Arctic peaceful and encouraging cooperation. The USA, she says, welcomes the increasing interest by non-Arctic states – although, she adds, each of the Arctic states has their own views on that.
“We feel like we have a lot to learn as a group of Arctic states still about how the Arctic affects the rest of the world, and the more countries that are in the room listening to the discussion and learning from it and can contribute to it, the better. So we encourage non-Arctic countries that have particular expertise, to contribute to the work of the council – the scientific work, the technical work, economic work.”
When it comes to regulating activities in the Arctic, the Council itself is not a regulatory body, but it contributes expertise to others.
“When it comes to shipping, the International Maritime Organisation is the regulatory authority all over the planet. But the Council has a strong interest in shipping in the Arctic, and so the Council has done some seminal work on the Arctic shipping situation, including a very important piece of work in 2009 called the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment. That was the first time anyone in the world had looked deeply into the state of shipping in the Arctic in the face of climate change and reducing sea ice. That study is still cited today”.
When it comes to regulating offshore activities like mining and fishing, the Arctic states also have their own regulatory regimes, “ so it’s sort of a mix of regulatory activity by lots of different entities”, Gourley explains.
The US Arctic representative is bound, of course, to take up a diplomatic stance. But while she stresses the Council’s efforts to keep tensions low and foster cooperation rather than conflict, she does make one qualification:
“The tensions in other parts of the world haven’t affected the work of the Council. That said, of course we all have our own national views about a lot of the issues that face the Arctic. But as to working together as a group of eight countries, together with the observer states and NGOs, it really has worked quite well. We’ve managed to carve out a space that we can work in collaboratively. Now, that doesn’t mean that will always be the case. As things change in certain parts of the world it’s not easy to predict what could happen in the Arctic. But at least up to this point, we’ve been able to work together quite well.”
Presumably, with climate change having such a strong and rapid impact on the Arctic, there are bound to be increasing differences of opinion when it comes to striking a balance between preserving the Arctic as it is on the one hand, and on the other developing commercial and industrial activities. The US representative was quite realistic on this one:
“Yes, that’s a real tension. I think that chapter of the Arctic story is still being written. Each Arctic state comes at those questions in their own waters and their own exclusive economic zones differently, and each country’s regime is slightly different. So it’s hard to say there’s a single answer to how we resolve those questions. But it is something that is very real. It’s of concern in particular to a lot of Arctic indignous people, who want to live traditionally but also realize that modernity is moving into their world and in some cases economic development is very necessary to create good jobs and include living conditions. So it is a very real, very alive debate.”
Indeed. The Arctic conundrum in a nutshell.
Tackling black carbon
What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic – and pollution produced in the rest of the world doesn’t stay out of the Arctic.
While the UN has its own body tasked with combating climate change, there are other climate-forcing agents which affect the Arctic particularly strongly, such as black carbon or soot. The Arctic Council sees this as an area where it has a key role to play:
“Black carbon itself is not part of the UNFCCC, so it’s not part of any global regulatory regime. So we are working in the Council on ways to reduce black carbon emissions voluntarily. So I think that’s going to have some very positive results.”
At the end of our talk, I wanted to know whether optimism outweighed concern or vice versa when it comes to the future of the Arctic in our warming world. The answer didn’t surprise me. But the underlying sentiment that in spite of all the tension in the world and the feeling that climate change is gathering momentum and happening ever faster, we all have to pull together, is a message I can subscribe to:
“I think I feel optimistic in a way. Certainly, the melting that’s happening in the Arctic is potentially hugely problematic for the world. I think the science is pretty clear on that front. And it’s not going to change overnight. Even if the Paris Agreement is fully implemented right away, it’s a long time before the Arctic environment can stabilize. But when we have countries working together, if we can keep the conversation going, and we can encourage all of us in the Arctic and Arctic observer states, to work together to keep the conversation going, even if it’s slow, and to keep communication lines working, I think we do have room to be optimistic about that area of the world.”
The next 20 years are not likely to be less challenging than the last for the Arctic Council. On the contrary. You have your work cut out for you. Good luck – and happy birthday.
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Arctic Council celebrates 20 years of northern cooperation, Eye on the Arctic
Norway: Arctic Council aims to boost business, The Independent Barents Observer
Russia: Russia invites Arctic Council on icebreaker tour, The Independent Barents Observer
Sweden: Arctic Council – From looking out to looking in, Blog by Mia Bennett, Cryopolitics
United States: The US-led Arctic Council – Still trying to get Americans to care about Arctic, Alaska Dispatch News