Arctic politics are heating up along with the climate

A National Snow & Ice Data Center view of Blue Marble image for January with country borders and labels; northern limit of forests (green line); International Date Line (dashed black line); and the North Pole referenced (red cross). Click on the image for more images.

Emerging powers eye access to Arctic resources

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Air temperatures aren’t the only thing heating up in the Arctic. With the potential for tapping new energy sources, tourism, shipping routes and other development, several countries are looking to gain political influence over future decisions in the region by seeking spots as permanent observers on the Arctic Council.

India, China and Brazil are all “knocking on the door” of the council, according to a report from the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, a public policy think tank that’s hosting the upcoming Arctic Security Conference.

Existing members of the council are divided on the idea of expansion, with Russia and Canada most strongly opposed. It is among the major questions with which Canada will have to grapple as it prepares to chair the council next year.

The potential expansion will be a key issue at the January 17-18 meeting in Toronto, where representatives from 15 countries, including national ambassadors as well as indigenous leaders, with more 100 participants total.

Eight countries with Arctic territories are full members of the council:  Canada, Russia, the United States, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark (Greenland) – the eight countries with Arctic territory.

Six northern indigenous groups – the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Arctic Athabaska Council, Gwich’in Council International, Sami Council, Russian Association of the Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) and Aleut International Association – wield strong influence as permanent participants.

The Arctic Council is the only international organization that gives indigenous peoples a formal place at the table. Another six non-Arctic nations sit in as observers today: the U.K., France, Germany, Spain, Poland and the Netherlands.

According to a press release from the foundation, many more non-Arctic countries, including Japan, South Korea, the European Union and several individual European states, now want “observer” status, a step that some fear would significantly increase the influence of non-Arctic participants.

Many non-Arctic countries are interested in the Arctic as the “canary in the coal mine” that can teach them about how climate change will impact their own states. They are also interested in the potential access to the vast hydrocarbons and resources in the region and the cost-savings of using shorter Arctic shipping routes.

China, for example, has a research station in Norway’s northern Svalbard Islands and is building an 8,000 ton icebreaker.

A survey last year by the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program found that Arctic residents view China as the least attractive potential partner in the region.

Canada and Russia are the strongest opponents of expansion. Some fear a greatly enlarged contingent of observers would overwhelm the current members, particularly the indigenous groups.

Others members warn that if the non-Arctic states aren’t allowed at the table, they’ll take Arctic concerns to other international bodies such as the United Nations General Assembly, and the Council’s influence would diminish. On the other hand, membership fees charged to additional observers could help support the participation of the indigenous groups.

“The council is struggling with this question,” says Tony Penikett, special advisor to the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program and former Premier of the Yukon. “The non-Arctic states’ interest is not just a fleeting fancy. For the Council to remain relevant, must it give them a larger role or remain an exclusive club?”

Scandinavian countries support expanding the council’s mandate to cover security and possibly become an entity that could develop legally binding agreements.

The council was originally formed to make recommendations to member governments with a focus on environmental and sustainable development issues. Other countries, particularly the United States, do not wish to see the council enlarge its scope.

Penikett says Canada has a great opportunity to become an influential Arctic power, and to ensure the resource-rich but fragile region doesn’t become a “Wild West” where the views of long-standing residents are ignored.

The door to leadership opens wide in 2013 when Canada begins a two-year term as chair of the 16year-old Council, a governmental forum originally created to promote international co-operation in the North.

And it has proven its value, resolving territorial and other disputes. Council members, for example, have negotiated an agreement on search and rescue operations with another to deal with responses to oil spills under development. Boundary issues are being successfully managed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

As for the future, says University of Toronto historian John English, currently writing a history of the Council: “With rapidly growing global interest in Arctic resources, transportation and science, Canada will become Council chair at a strategic time. It has a golden opportunity to show leadership and shape the Arctic agenda.”

“For Canada to be an Arctic leader and an Arctic power, we need to go beyond protecting our region through the purchase of jets, ships and satellites,” says Madeleine Redfern, Mayor of Iqaluit, the capital of Canada’s Arctic territory of Nunavut. “Canada needs to be a leader in science, research and development, governance and innovative solutions for our region. Despite our great challenges, including vast distances and climate, we also have immense opportunities in terms of resources and human potential. We northerners and Canadians all benefit from having strong, healthy and vibrant Arctic communities that contribute positively towards our nation’s economy and security.”

Tom Axworthy, President & CEO, Walter & Duncan Gordon Foundation, notes that, while counterpart entities in other Arctic states flourished, Canada has let its Canadian Polar Commission flounder. “While the Canadian Government has appointed a new board, adequate funding needs to follow these appointments for the Commission to be truly back in business,” he says.




One thought on “Arctic politics are heating up along with the climate

  1. How is it this so-called Arctic council can control the Arctic and block participation? How would they like it if other countries decide to form an Antarctica council and block Arctic council participants and their existing bases? I’m surprised other countries in the EU have observer status in the Arctic Council where countries elsewhere with higher latitudes are denied access.

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