The eight-nation Arctic Council met in Nuuk, Greenland, the week before last and produced a declaration of policy and action that is at once a culmination of three decades of rising interest in the Arctic, and a manifestation of the dramatic new challenges being generated by global climate change.
A relatively recent creation, in 1991, the Arctic Council was formed to promote intergovernmental protection of the Arctic environment. Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark with its dependencies of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Canada and the U.S. are full members. Attendees at the Nuuk meeting, the seventh ministerial gathering since the Council's inception, included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Alaska's U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Official U.S. interest in the Arctic, aside from military considerations, dates from the mid-1970s when concern over the stability of the ozone layer in the atmosphere got Congress's attention. NASA was the first agency charged with formulating a U.S. Arctic policy. Then, in 1984, Congress created the U.S. Arctic Research Commission to establish national policy priorities for basic and applied Arctic research, working with the National Science Foundation. Following NASA scientist James Hansen's path-breaking 1988 Senate testimony, announcing the reality of global climate change, Congress clarified the Arctic commission's mandate. Among other considerations, research priorities are to acknowledge and provide for the rights of indigenous and other residents of the Arctic, and one member of the governing board is to be indigenous.
Current Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell is the immediate past chair of the research commission; President Obama recently appointed former UAA Chancellor Fran Ulmer the present chair.
In the sweeping declaration produced at the Nuuk meeting, the Arctic Council established a Secretariat, to be based in Tromso, Norway, agreed to a legally binding cooperation protocol on maritime and aeronautical search and rescue, noted the unmistakable influence of global climate change on the Arctic environment, and called for protection of that environment from, in addition to other factors, oil pollution, increased levels of mercury and persistent organic pollutants, and black carbon emissions. The declaration puts the Arctic Council squarely in league with those who understand the human contributions to global climate change, and aligns it with the effort to mitigate those contributions by curtailing various commonplace human activities. The council urged member states to work toward implementing the agreements reached at the U.N. Framework Conference on Climate Change in Cancun last December, which are to be discussed at a UNFCCC meeting in Durban, South Africa, this December.
The United States is an Arctic nation by virtue of its purchase of Alaska in 1867. With other northern regions, Alaska is bedeviled with an inherent contradiction between environmental protection and economic development.
Alaska leaders and politicians understand well that growth in Alaska and the north means resource development and utilization. Early non-Native Alaska settlers regarded the region's resources as inexhaustible, and therefore resented efforts by Outsiders, who were mostly elite eastern nabobs like Theodore Roosevelt, George Bird Grinnell and Madison Grant, to restrict land use through federal withdrawals.
Then, the rise of the modern environmental movement after World War II led to the clash over the nation's "environmental crown jewels" in Alaska and generated Alaskan rancor over Congress's Alaska Lands Act (ANILCA) in 1980.
An aspect of that movement, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, now combines with the growing realization of global climate change to pit the State of Alaska against forces moving to protect the northern and Arctic environments and to mitigate the role of economic development in climate change. Gov. Parnell's lawsuits against protection of polar bears, beluga whales, ribbon and other seals, humpback whales, Steller sea lions, wood bison, caribou, wolves and salmon, and on behalf of oil development, are a manifestation of the conflict. In testimony before Congress before leaving the Arctic Research Commission, Treadwell emphasized the prospect of Arctic shipping as a facilitator of Alaska and Arctic economic development.
Finding compromises between northern growth, sustainability and environmental protection represents enormous challenges for the Arctic Council, for the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, and for the State of Alaska, challenges which will require concerted and enlightened leadership. President Obama clearly believes former Chancellor Ulmer will bring such capability to her commission chairmanship.
Steve Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.