What is Arctic diplomacy and why does it matter?

Person on dog sled surrounded by ice and snow (© Martin Zwick/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
Climate change is threatening the way of life of Indigenous people, such as Inuit hunters, seen here near Kullorsuaq in northwestern Greenland in March 2020. (© Martin Zwick/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Climate change is heating the Arctic three times faster than any other region on Earth. Melting ice and rising sea levels are altering the environment and impacting the lives of local communities. Thawing also opens access to natural resources and allows for new shipping lanes and increased tourism.

With these rapid changes comes an increasing need for international cooperation in the Arctic.

The United States and seven other Arctic states, as well as Indigenous people of the region, are working through the Arctic Council to address challenges, from combating climate change to promoting sustainable economic development.

Three people standing on grassy area as one person points (© Saul Loeb/AP Images)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) speaks with Greenlandic Premier Mute Egede (left) and climate scientist Mie Winding in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, May 20. (© Saul Loeb/AP Images)

The United States is “committed to advancing a peaceful Arctic region where cooperation prevails on climate, the environment, science and safety,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said May 20 at the 12th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland.

The Arctic Council operates by consensus, ensuring all members have an equal say in decisions.

During the meeting, the Arctic Council adopted its first strategic plan, outlining priorities for the work of the eight states and six Indigenous permanent participant organizations over the next decade. The strategic plan calls for the council to:

  • Improve monitoring of the effects of climate change and integrate climate considerations in all relevant future policy recommendations and projects.
  • Promote action worldwide to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
  • Encourage cooperation on safe and sustainable shipping and other forms of development that affect Arctic waters.
  • Improve the health, safety and long-term well-being of the Arctic’s Indigenous people and other inhabitants.

President Biden has called for strengthening international partnerships to address climate change. The United States plans to provide up to an additional $1 million to support the Arctic Council’s climate efforts.

At the meeting, Blinken emphasized the importance of partnering with the Indigenous groups in these efforts. “Indigenous peoples have generations worth of knowledge about how to be good stewards of the Arctic,” he said. “We must be true and equal partners in this work.”

Arctic Council efforts addressing climate change include the Community-Based Black Carbon and Public Health Assessment. The collaboration, led by the United States (through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), the Russian Federation and the Arctic Indigenous peoples’ organization Aleut International Association, aims to limit black carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels and mitigate its effects.

The United States has reduced its black carbon emissions 34% since 2013, the largest reduction by an Arctic state.

Blinken urged the council to continue strengthening efforts to protect and advance the Arctic.

“The Arctic as a region for strategic competition has seized the world’s attention,” Blinken said, “but the Arctic is more than a strategically or economically significant region. It’s home to our people. Its hallmark has been and must remain peaceful cooperation. It’s our responsibility to protect that peaceful cooperation and to build on it as neighbors and as partners.”