On Friday, ministers from eight countries and leaders of Arctic Indigenous Peoples met in Iqaluit, Canada for the biennial meeting of the Arctic Council, an international body charged with addressing the most important issues facing the Arctic region. The meeting, which took place 200 miles south of the Arctic circle, marked the beginning of the United States’ tenure as leader of the Council, with Canadian Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq handing reins of the Council over to Secretary of State John Kerry.
At the meeting, the Council — which is made up of representatives from the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, and Russia — signed the Iqaluit Declaration 2015, meant to recap the accomplishments of Canada’s two-year leadership of the Council and serve as a guiding document for the United State’s as it looks to its two-year turn. The declaration reaffirmed each nation’s commitment to maintaining peace in the Arctic, sustaining indigenous communities, and combating climate change in the region.
According to Reuters, the most tangible outcome of the meeting was a new, nonbinding pledge to do more to fight black carbon and methane, two potent but fast-dissipating sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Black carbon — one of the primary components of soot emitted by diesel engines and wood-burning stoves — can settle on ice and snow, causing it to retain heat and melt faster. Methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon, can be released by melting permafrost — vast tracts of frozen soil that store organic matter.
Canada’s Arctic Council chairmanship from 2013 to 2015 was dictated by a theme of “Development for the People of the North,” which took a decidedly pro-industry approach to Arctic relations by calling for the development of oil resources and Arctic shipping routes. The United States’ theme will be “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges and Responsibilities” and will focus on addressing the living conditions of Arctic communities as well as combating the threats of climate change.
“There’s only ‘one Arctic’ and all of us — the United States, other nations, indigenous peoples, and Arctic communities — must join together to ensure responsible stewardship of this incredible region,” Kerry said at the meeting.
The United States takes the helm of the Council at a time when the Arctic region is undergoing rapid changes. The Arctic, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, saw the lowest winter maximum of sea ice on satellite record this year. From 1975 to 2012, the ice thickness during the summer minimum has dropped 85 percent; some scientists think that by 2020, the North Pole will be ice-free in the summer.
Arctic communities are especially vulnerable to eroding coastline and sea-level rise, which threaten to reshape the geography of the Arctic so profoundly that entire villages have begun making plans to relocate.
Even as indigenous communities are battling a future with less ice, others see a warming Arctic as an untapped resource for industries like oil and gas, shipping, and tourism. Shell, with the permission of the United States government, is hoping to begin drilling in the Arctic as early as this summer. Other countries are also eyeing the Arctic’s resources: during a visit to a scientific research station just days before the Council meeting, Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin called the Arctic “a Russian Mecca.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who has been the Russian representative at the Arctic Council for more than a decade, missed the meeting, sending Russia’s environmental minister Sergei Donskoi in his stead. Though Lavrov cited scheduling conflicts as the reason for his absence, some think the move might have been motivated by the United States and Canada’s criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
At the meeting, however, each nation stressed the importance of putting aside geopolitical issues for the benefit of the Arctic.
“It’s in no one’s interest to let problems elsewhere impact cooperation in the Arctic,” Erkki Tuomioja, Finland’s foreign minister, said.