Warming Climate Attracts Non-Arctic Countries to Arctic Council

TORONTO, Ontario, Canada, January 17, 2012 (ENS) – Drawn by rapid climate changes in the resource-rich Arctic, China, India and Brazil, which have no Arctic territories, are knocking on the door of the increasingly influential Arctic Council looking for admission as permanent observers.

The issue has divided existing members, 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 Arctic Council next year.

The issue is on the agenda of a two-day meeting on the future of the Arctic Council, which opened today in Toronto. The second annual Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Conference has attracted more than 100 participants from 15 nations, including experts, national ambassadors and indigenous leaders.

On sovereignty patrol, this Canadian Navy team is offshore Grise Fiord, Canada’s most northern community, August 2010. (Photo by Corporal Rick Ayer, Formation Imaging Services courtesy Dept. National Defence)

Full members of the Arctic Council are Canada, Russia, the United States, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark via 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 and Aleut International Association – are 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: France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom.

However, many more non-Arctic countries, which in addition to China, India and Brazil, include Japan, South Korea, the European Union and several individual European states, now want observer status, a step that some fear would increase the influence of non-Arctic participants.

Many non-Arctic countries are interested in the Arctic as the “canary in the coal mine” on climate change. 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.

Svalbard (Photo by Pamela Melrose)

China has a research station in Norway’s northern Svalbard Islands and is building an 8,000 metric tonne 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.

But others warn that if the non-Arctic states are not 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.

F ormer Yukon Premier Tony Penikett (Photo courtesy Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation)

“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?”

Another divisive issue – should the Council, originally intended to make recommendations to member governments with a focus on environmental and sustainable development issues, expand its mandate to matters such as security, and aim to become a source of legally binding decisions?

Scandinavian countries are the strongest supporters of such changes. Others, particularly the United States, do not wish to see the Council enlarge its scope.

The forum in Toronto will recommend the issues Canada should pursue as Council chair.

A crucial question is how to ensure current structures are kept strong and effective enough to confront the pressures that will arise as the Arctic is opened to fossil-fuel and mineral exploration, international shipping, tourism and other developments.

Returning salmon form into balls of fish upon which Steller sea lions prey, Prince William Sound, Alaska (Photo by delphinusorca)

The door to leadership opens wide in 2013 when Canada begins a two-year term as chair of the 16 year-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. In 2011, Council members negotiated an agreement on search and rescue operations and another agreement to deal with responses to oil spills is under development.

Boundary issues are being managed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

As for the future, says University of Toronto historian John English, who is 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,” Redfern said. “Despite our great challenges, including vast distances and climate, we also have immense opportunities in terms of resources and human potential.”

Tom Axworthy, president and CEO of the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, observes that Canada has let its Canadian Polar Commission flounder. “While the Canadian government has appointed a new board,” he said, “adequate funding needs to follow these appointments for the Commission to be truly back in business.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2012. All rights reserved.