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Arctic affairs: region at top of U.S. foreign policy agenda.


In April 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Iqaluit, a small town in the Canadian Arctic, to attend the ninth biennial ministerial meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council, the pre-eminent circumpolar forum for addressing Arctic issues. The event began with an oil lamp lighting ceremony in a room decorated with seal skins, soapstone carvings and narwhal tusks, items of deep significance to the Inuit people of the Canadian Arctic.

After a long day of discussions, the outgoing chair of the Arctic Council, Canadian Minister of the Environment Leona Aglukkaq, handed Secretary Kerry a wooden gavel hand-crafted from birch and featuring images of a raven and salmon. With this gesture, Secretary Kerry became the new chair and the two-year rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council passed from Canada to the United States.

At the Iqaluit meeting, Kerry spoke of the region's international importance. "It's a critical part of the global climate system ... ensuring a stable, livable environment from Barrow, Alaska, to Beijing, China," he said, adding that the Arctic is rapidly changing. "How we as Arctic states, and indeed as a global community, respond to those changes over the coming months and years can literally make all the difference," he noted.

During its two years at the helm of the Arctic Council, the United States will work with other nations, through its own national agencies, with the state of Alaska, and with others at home and around the world to balance the development of resources with environmental stewardship, protect the culture and livelihoods of Arctic residents, and maintain the Arctic as a region of peace and stability.

The United States is an Arctic nation by virtue of the state of Alaska, one third of which lies above the Arctic Circle. It is joined in the Arctic Council by the seven other nations that also have territory above the Arctic Circle: Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden. Six Permanent Participant groups representing the indigenous peoples of the Arctic serve on the Council in an advisory capacity. The Arctic Council was founded in 1996, and matters related to sustainable development, environmental protection, scientific cooperation and social issues make up the lion's share of its work--its mandate explicitly excludes military security.

Although to many people the Arctic may seem to be a frozen, empty expanse of ice and snow, it's very much alive, inhabited by more than 4 million people (including some 50,000 U.S. citizens residing above the Arctic Circle) and teeming with flora, fauna and marine life. It's a place where extreme distances and harsh weather create tight-knit communities with rich cultural traditions and where individuals have a deep and abiding respect for nature and all that it provides.

Alaska itself is more than twice as large as Texas, but while there are 27 million Texans, Alaska has a population of only 736,000. Because of the expense of building infrastructure over such great distances, there are relatively few roads in the state. As such, many Alaskan villages are reachable only by plane or boat, which makes food, fuel, education and healthcare exponentially more expensive. Life in the American Arctic is further complicated at times by challenges such as a lack of running water, poor sanitation and a reliance on diesel generators for electricity and heat. Diesel fuel has detrimental effects not just on the pocketbooks and health of Arctic residents, but it also plays a role in climate change by accelerating the melting of Arctic ice.


Embassy Ottawa colleagues learned more about the importance of the Arctic when organizing this year's ministerial meeting. As Dr. Miguel Rodrigues, a Foreign Service officer who served as the secretary's control officer put it, "The Ministerial set the tone for the next two years of U.S. leadership on Arctic issues, and for me, it was a rich and rewarding professional experience that revealed the reach of diplomacy far beyond world capitals to distant lands whose future matters to all of us."

Climate change is also an issue confronting the Arctic, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet on average. Glaciers and sea ice are melting at an astonishing rate, causing sea levels to rise around the world. Some scientists are predicting an ice-free summer in the Arctic Ocean by 2050. In Alaska, reduction of year-round Arctic sea ice that previously protected the coast from the eroding effects of waves and tides has now left some villages at risk of falling into the ocean. Permafrost, which is frozen soil found in much of the Arctic, stores massive amounts of carbon and threatens to exacerbate climate change on a planetary scale as it thaws.

Changes in the Arctic are creating new opportunities and paving the way for increased human activity, for instance, by opening new shipping lanes and offering improved access to resources. With these new activities, however, comes increased responsibility to ensure the region's environmental integrity and the safety of those who live, work and travel there.

In recognition of the need for the international community to work together in addressing both the challenges and opportunities arising in today's Arctic, the United States chose "One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges and Responsibilities" as its chairmanship theme. The three main priorities of the U.S. chairmanship are ensuring Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship; improving economic and living conditions; and addressing the impacts of climate change.

To guide engagement on the Arctic during this pivotal period, Secretary Kerry appointed Adm. Robert J. Papp, Jr. as the first U.S. special representative for the Arctic. A former commandant of the Coast Guard, Papp will work closely with Fran Ulmer, the secretary's special advisor on Arctic science and policy and chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission; Ambassador David Balton, the deputy assistant secretary for oceans and fisheries in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES); and Julia Gourley, the United States' senior Arctic official, also from OES.


The Arctic states, Permanent Participants, and other key Council players, including official observers and Working Group representatives, meet at least twice per year at Senior Arctic Official (SAO) meetings to carry out the work of the Council. During the U.S. chairmanship, SAO meetings will take place in Alaska, Maine and Washington, D.C.

To coincide with the U.S. chairmanship, the Department is taking its Arctic engagement to a new level, domestically and abroad. New initiatives are being carried out in conjunction with posts in Arctic countries and across the world. Secretary Kerry will host a major international leadership conference this month in Anchorage, Alaska focusing on Arctic climate change. Also, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs recently launched the Fulbright Arctic Initiative, a new academic exchange program that will support a team of 17 scholars from all eight Arctic nations in carrying out collaborative, interdisciplinary research on issues related to energy, water, health and infrastructure in the Arctic.

As an Arctic nation, the United States has the responsibility to act as an advocate and steward for the region. Thanks to the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council and the new initiatives, enthusiasm and partnerships it is spurring, we'll be able to do just that, even after the U.S. chairmanship ends in 2017. More information on the Department's Arctic work is available online and via Twitter: @USArctic and #OneArctic.

By Erin Robertson, Arctic press and public affairs officer, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
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Author:Robertson, Erin
Publication:State Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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