At this month’s Arctic Council meeting in Yellowknife, Canada, the U.S. Department of State announced key initiatives that it plans on pursuing when it assumes the two year Chair of the eight-nation council in April 2015.
These initiatives, presented under the theme of “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges, and Responsibilities,” will focus largely on reducing the causes of and impacts from climate change and will include projects ranging from reducing emissions of short lived climate pollutants to developing a circumpolar Arctic network of Marine Protected Areas.
The U.S. announced their priority programs in three distinct thematic areas:
- Addressing the Impacts of Climate Change in the Arctic,
- Stewardship of the Arctic Ocean, and
- Improving Economic and Living Conditions in the Arctic.
As climate change is causing the remote Arctic ecosystems to change more rapidly than any other region on the planet, Ocean Conservancy applauds the ambitious and comprehensive nature of these initiatives.
Ocean Conservancy previously undertook an in-depth review of the current state of Arctic science and management. We recommended that the U.S. take this opportunity to begin the difficult but urgent process of marine spatial planning and conservation by developing a regional seas program for the Arctic Ocean, protecting important ecological areas, and addressing climate pollutants that are the underlying cause of wildlife and habitat declines in the globally unique Arctic marine environment. We are proud to report that all of these components were prominent in the U.S. plans.
The U.S. priorities represent a significant move forward from the Economic Development focus of the conservative Canadian government – the current Chair – and were well received by the eight Arctic nations and six indigenous Permanent Participant organizations who sit at the table. While we cannot solve the multitude of issues confronting the Arctic during the two-year U.S. Chair, we can continue our progress in 2017 and beyond when the conservation-minded Finnish government assumes the Chair.
There will still be a focus on improving living conditions and encouraging sustainable development in remote Arctic communities through programs such as renewable energy initiatives and protecting freshwater resources. The U.S. conservation priorities, however, will help the Council, which was founded in the 1990s as an outgrowth of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, get back to its roots and address the ecological changes in the rapidly melting Arctic. This will occur with management and coordination through a regional seas agreement and program, and at site specific levels, including enacting protections for important ecological areas and habitat for Arctic wildlife.
The U.S. focus on climate change is particularly important now that other large emitters, including China, the European Union, and India, have been admitted to the Arctic Council as Observers. This means that the Arctic Council will be another venue for collaborative work on reducing emissions of climate pollutants. With the recent announcement of a bilateral U.S. and China program to reduce emissions, Ocean Conservancy has high hopes that this work will continue and expand through focused dialogue at the Arctic Council.
Further signaling the U.S. commitment to using the two year Chair of the Arctic Council to achieve real progress in saving the Arctic was the announcement that Secretary of State John Kerry himself will act as the Chair of the Council and that the U.S. will undertake both public outreach and scientific initiatives to help us better understand the Arctic and the challenges that wildlife and communities are confronting with the impacts of climate change.
As one of only two conservation organizations accredited to work at the Arctic Council, Ocean Conservancy looks forward to using our unique access to this high level intergovernmental forum to ensure that these ambitious initiatives to save the Arctic and its wildlife are achieved.