Alaska stands to benefit as US takes reins of Arctic Council

The Alaska flag. What will the upcoming U.S. chairmanship mean for the state? (iStock)
The Alaska flag. What will the upcoming U.S. chairmanship mean for the state? (iStock)
Alaska stands to gain when the U.S. takes over chairmanship of the Arctic Council on Friday, with several meetings set to provide an economic shot in the arm and increased awareness about climate change and Russia’s buildup at the top of the globe, officials said.

The eight-nation diplomatic forum shaped perceptions about global warming a decade ago with the release of a landmark study — the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. But the council itself remains a relative unknown across the world, even in the Arctic.

Council observers are hopeful that will change Friday, when the current chair, Canadian environment minister Leona Aglukkaq, hands the gavel to Secretary of State John Kerry.

The University of Alaska will do its part, hosting a live-stream of the transition taking place more than 2,000 miles away in the Inuit city of Iqaluit in northeastern Canada. The university will air the ceremony at 9:45 a.m. Alaska time — with Kerry expected to lay out U.S. priorities including climate change — at campuses in Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks.

Climate, security and energy

Former Alaska Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, who will be on the five-person US chairmanship team as a senior adviser, will provide opening statements to those who attend the event at the University of Alaska Anchorage in the Fine Arts Building in Room 117. Parking is free at the university on Fridays.

The U.S. will focus on such efforts as reversing climate change, lowering greenhouse gas emissions and better understanding the consequences of black carbon, particulate matter considered a driver of climate change, said Craig Fleener, Gov. Bill Walker’s Arctic policy adviser.

The state hopes to also drive the agenda and bring attention to such things as the high cost of energy, ensuring food security and oil spill response capability, he said.

Observers said the U.S. chairmanship will help boost local economies over the next two years because many of the council’s meetings will be held in Alaska.  Large events involving senior Arctic Council officials are scheduled to take place in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, with smaller working group meetings set for Unalaska, Kotzebue, Barrow and Chena Hot Springs.

The state plans to host side events associated with the senior meetings, so Alaska can make sure its voice is heard, said Fleener.

“The senior Arctic official meetings are not public, so we want to create opportunities to get Alaskans hooked into this and get Alaskans a chance to meet with folks,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for the state.”

Marine traffic

The eight Arctic nations forming the council are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S., with the chairmanship based on a two-year rotating basis. The council also includes six indigenous groups with “permanent participant” status.

Fleener, a past permanent participant through the Gwich’in Council International, said he helped edit some of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment report. The long-term study involved 300 scientists and reported that Arctic temperatures had warmed twice as fast as the global average over the previous 50 years.

The council’s next big study will center on Arctic marine shipping and the possibility of more marine traffic as sea lanes open for longer periods each summer, said Fleener.

Ulmer said the chairmanship could lead to benefits for Alaska if heightened awareness causes U.S. leaders to invest in icebreakers, ports and airstrips in Alaska. Other countries are increasing efforts in the Far North as they prepare to extract oil, gas and minerals or prepare for increased shipping.

“A lot of Americans may think of Alaska romantically as a nice place to visit but not as a strategic asset,” said Ulmer.

That could change as people realize Russia, representing about half the Arctic, is building ports of refuge and refueling stations for icebreakers.

“A lot of the world’s future economic opportunity is in the Arctic and they are acting, I would say, as rational players,” Ulmer said of Russia’s steps in the circumpolar region.

The U.S. and Arctic identity

The U.S., on the other hand, doesn’t see itself as an Arctic nation. “The chairmanship gives us the opportunity to reach out to people in the Lower 48 and say that because we are an Arctic nation, we need to be much more engaged in preparing,” she said.

The chairmanship could also bring more national attention to climate change, something that hasn’t raised widespread alarm among the Lower 48 public, though many scientists believe the melting ice pack has affected global weather patterns by altering the jet stream.

“We don’t understand it completely but it’s clear we’re all tied together,” Ulmer said. “People could once think of the Arctic as a distant, far-off place, but it’s becoming more obvious how connected we are and how it matters.”

Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, co-chair of the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission created by the Legislature, said he’s hopeful the U.S. chairmanship better positions the country and Alaska to capitalize on its place in the Arctic.

Russia has boosted its military presence in the region and made bold pronouncements laying claim to broad swaths of the Arctic. That includes asserting last year that it had rights to an additional 500,000 square miles of the region, thanks to underwater ridges extending into the Arctic Ocean.

Other countries will want to take advantage of changes in the region, and the U.S. should prepare as well, he said.

Preparing for Friday’s transition, the Legislature this month unanimously called for the Arctic Economic Council to be chaired by an Alaskan for the next two years. During a council meeting in Ottowa Thursday, Arctic Slope Regional Corp. executive Tara Sweeney was unanimously elected to do just that.

The economic forum was recently created by the Arctic Council and will look at ways to expand opportunities for small and medium-size businesses in the Arctic, Herron said.

“The beauty of being in the Arctic is we have tremendous resource potential, but also we have to be risk-averse,” Herron said. “Other countries want to take advantage of the change that is affecting the world and we should be ready for it, too.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  The Canadian Arctic Council Ministerial – What to Expect, Blog by Heather Exner-Pirot

Denmark:  Nordics to step up security cooperation on perceived Russian threat, Yle News

Finland:  Survey – More than half of reservists in Finland pro-Nato, Yle News

Norway:  Peace and stability crucial for Arctic economy, Barents Observer

Russia: Majorities in Arctic nations favor cooperation with Russia, Barents Observer

Sweden:  Russia concerned by Finland, Sweden moves towards closer ties with NATO, Radio Sweden

United States:  Feature Interview – Rethinking how we talk about the Arctic, Eye on the Arctic




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