Arctic Council Meetings Enhance International Environmental Cooperation

Posted by Paul Cunningham
March 17, 2011
An Iceberg Melts Off Ammassalik Island

As the last of the winter ice melts off the canals of Copenhagen and the first flowers of spring are appearing in the window boxes of the Danish capital, U.S. diplomats joined representatives from throughout the Arctic to discuss issues shaping the environment and lives of people hundreds of miles to the north throughout the circumpolar Arctic. From understanding the impact of ice melting around the Arctic to enhancing cooperation to avoid offshore oil spills, representatives to the Arctic Council are engaged in four days of discussions and negotiations leading up to the biannual Arctic Council Ministers Meeting in Nuuk, Greenland.

The Arctic Council is a unique intergovernmental forum consisting of the eight countries with land north of the Arctic Circle. Joining the Arctic governments are Permanent Participants who bring the voices and perspectives of the Arctic's indigenous peoples to the table. Representatives of many non-Arctic countries and non-governmental organizations also follow the proceedings to stay informed about the Council's initiatives that are responding to mounting change in the Arctic.

The Arctic is warming faster than other regions of the world, and the Arctic Council is on the front lines of understanding and responding to that change. For example, the Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost of the Arctic (SWIPA) Project involved the work of more than 200 scientists and studying the frozen parts of the Arctic. The Council is scheduled to release the findings in two months when the Arctic foreign ministers gather in Greenland. Visit this website for a taste of the SWIPA findings and to view videos and summary reports prepared by the SWIPA team in 2009 to coincide with the release of the Greenland Ice Sheet component of the SWIPA study. Similar videos will premiere this May in conjunction with the release of the full report.

As sea ice retreats in the Arctic, interest in Arctic shipping is increasing. Two years ago the Arctic Council released the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), available here Among the policy recommendations contained in that assessment was a call for a search and rescue agreement among the Arctic countries. In response to that call, the United States and Russia co-chaired a task force to negotiate a search and rescue agreement for the Arctic. The finishing touches are now being put on that agreement. When signed at the Arctic Council meeting in May, it will become the first binding agreement among all eight Arctic countries. More importantly, it marks an important step in safeguarding human life in this rugged environment.

Encouraged by the success of the search and rescue negotiations, the United States presented a proposal to enhance cooperation in response to oil spills in the Arctic. While details concerning the desired scope of such an agreement remain to be worked out, there is widespread support for this initiative. This underscores the desire of Arctic countries to work together as responsible stewards of the Arctic environment. More details on this exciting initiative will be announced at the meeting in May.

As climate change affects the Arctic, it is not just human activity that is altered. Arctic ecosystems are changing, and the plants and animals within those ecosystems are responding to those changes. The Arctic Council continues to track those changes through the Arctic Biodiversity Assessment, co-led by the United States with Finland, Greenland and Sweden. While the assessment is not yet complete, initial findings can be seen in the Biodiversity Trends Report.

In response to the stresses being placed on Arctic ecosystems and in an attempt to better understand these systems, the United States is working with its Arctic Council partners to promote the idea of ecosystem-based management. This holistic approach considers the whole range of activities taking place within an ecosystem to understand how the various activities impact each other and to develop a responsible management plan that balances those interests.

While U.S. diplomats and technical experts put the finishing touches on many of the projects that marked the 2009-2011 Danish Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, attention is also turning toward the upcoming handover to the Swedish Chairmanship. Sweden will take the helm of the Council at the conclusion of the Meeting of Foreign Ministers in Nuuk, Greenland. More on U.S. plans for Nuuk and beyond later this week.

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