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The Arctic Council: Progression under the U.S. Chairmanship

At the most recent meeting of the Polar Research Board, Julia Gourley, the U.S. Senior Arctic Official, represented the U.S. Department of State in order to brief the panel of Arctic experts on the intentions of the U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship. Gourley began by emphasizing that the two-year U.S. Chairmanship will focus on long-term projects that have not yet been tackled in the international council of Arctic countries. This means that the U.S. will have relatively little to show at the end of its two year term, but instead will create the basic infrastructure of programs necessary for the welfare of the Arctic. Gourley, who works under Arctic Council Chairman John Kerry, affirmed that the U.S. Chairmanship will focus on three thematic areas: impacts of climate change, the Arctic Ocean, and the improvement of economic and living conditions for indigenous peoples.

The most extensive list of tasks falls under the category of climate change where the U.S. has many projects it is aiming to begin by the end of the chairmanship. Perhaps the largest focus is on the reduction/elimination of black carbon and methane emissions. However, one important aspect of focus in such reduction is the economics of mitigation, considering that “ninety percent of [Alaskan] state revenue comes from the tax of oil and gas” (Carolyn Rea, ConocoPhillips). Hence, some Alaskan and other Arctic natives may be hesitant to such a considerable change in policies. In addition to the simple acknowledgment of climate change, the U.S. Chairmanship will create a framework for action in committing to adaptation and resilience toward the rapidly growing issue. In addition, the U.S. Chair of the Arctic Council will dedicate its time to the study of invasive species, to working with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to mitigate the risks of the rise of shipping industries in the Arctic, and to working on an early warning climate change indicator via a digital elevation map.

The central focus of the Chairmanship’s work in the Arctic Ocean revolves around stewardship and security. They will also enforce search and rescue exercises in the region (e.g., using a cruise ship scheduled to sail through in 2016) to advance such procedures. Another area of importance for the U.S. is the increase and enforcement of marine protected areas. Although there are a few attempting international treaties, there is currently no international body with the jurisdiction to enforce the protection of such declared areas. Another conspicuous concentration for the Arctic Council Chair will be the advancement of research on and prevention of ocean acidification through emissions reductions and other various measures.

Finally, Gourley concluded with elaborating on how the U.S. Chairmanship plans to improve life in the Arctic for indigenous peoples. The U.S. plans to focus on renewable energy initiatives, which will consequently lower the cost of living. Gourley does, however, recognize that such initiatives still require research to determine how economically beneficial they will be in areas that have  low population densities. Further concentration will be placed on improving sanitary conditions of Arctic communities, as well as mental health and suicide prevention. Furthermore, the U.S. plans to increase telecommunications between Arctic indigenous peoples and the rest of the world, which will support the goal of increasing awareness of why the Arctic matters to people outside of the region. One of the most important plans for the indigenous peoples is to begin the task of calculating freshwater resources of the Arctic. It is projected that freshwater resources will become increasingly valuable in the near future, and the employment of such resources will potentially make the Arctic a world region worth recognition.

With the ever-increasing importance of the Arctic on the world scene, the U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship has an opportunity to fully develop its potential for international cooperation. The sustainability and preservation of the Arctic will impact futures for the entire world, whether it be by acting as a driving force behind climate change feedback loops (i.e., melting permafrost), the cause of the rising seas, or serving as a primary freshwater source for large populations of the world. It is pertinent that the U.S. Chair take advantage of its position to actively develop and prepare the Arctic for such scenarios.

We are honored to have U.S. Senior Arctic Official Julia Gourley join us for a webinar in the Arctic Summer College  and very much look forward to hearing her further discuss the importance of the Arctic and the roles in which the U.S. can partake.