Most people on the planet likely consider the Arctic a distant, remote place. Although it’s a relatively small part of the world, the Arctic Ocean has an oversized influence on what happens everywhere else, so it gets a lot of attention from world leaders.
Governments representing most of the world’s peoples will be watching when the eight member governments of the Arctic Council gather for a biennial meeting April 24–25. The Canadian government currently chairs the council, so the session convenes in Iqaluit in the Nunavut territory, the largest and most sparsely populated of the Canadian regions.
Countries that border the Arctic Ocean form the council membership: Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.
Tribal governments representing 500,000 indigenous people across the region, with generations of history living in the harsh environment, are also participants in Arctic Council talks.
Observer states include the most populous nations on the planet — China and India — plus major European and East Asian states. Organizations with official observer status include major international nongovernmental groups and U.N. agencies.
Why do they all care? “The Arctic region is the last global frontier,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014, “and a region with enormous and growing geostrategic, economic, climate, environment, and national security implications for the United States and the world.”
Science has shown conclusively that climate change is occurring faster in the Arctic than elsewhere on the planet. This fact has a variety of environmental, transportation, commercial and other consequences.
Arctic ice melt will create more open water. New shipping lanes or new fishing grounds are likely to appear in more navigable waters, presenting new opportunities and challenges.
The unique species, peoples and languages of the region — cultural and biological resources for the entire planet — will also be greatly affected by a warming Arctic region.
The Arctic nations watch these trends develop, mindful of their pledges as council members to cooperate with regional counterparts in environmental protection and sustainable development.
In recent years, the council has reached cooperative agreements on search and rescue activities and marine oil pollution preparedness.
A long-standing, high-level scientific group provides a steady flow of in-depth environmental research to inform council decisions. In the 2015 session, this group will present findings on black carbon and greenhouse gases in the Arctic and their climatic impacts. The scientific group will also present a report on pollution’s effect on human health, persistent organic pollutants and radioactivity in the Arctic.
Secretary of State John Kerry will represent the United States at the Iqaluit meeting and will assume the council’s chairmanship when this April meeting adjourns.