Monday, October 20, 2014

U.S. Takes the Helm of Council Assigned to Deal with Fast-Changing Arctic

Black Carbon iceberg - Soot helps accelerate melting ice in the Arctic.  (Credit: Mark Bennett, courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Click to enlarge.
The Obama administration is pushing to make climate change a focal point as the United States becomes the new leader of the international Arctic Council, a move that is winning praise from environmentalists, even though it's unclear how it may translate into action.

This week, senior Arctic officials from multiple countries will meet in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, to hear the United States present its agenda for its two-year chairmanship starting next year.  The council is a forum for nations bordering on the Arctic.

Many environmentalists are cheering about recent remarks from U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic Adm. Robert Papp Jr., who indicated via speeches that climate change would be a main theme at the council, with new efforts on things like controlling black carbon and reducing methane.

Greens say that opens the door for potential new actions to protect the pristine region and control emissions that are melting ice and spreading soot.  "It really is a turning point," said Erika Rosenthal, a staff attorney at Earthjustice.  But others caution that a too-aggressive stance could shift the council away from uncompleted priorities and possibly spur political tension.

"The admiral is barking up a slightly wrong tree," Charles Ebinger, director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said about the recent emphasis on climate change.  The Arctic Council may not be the best place to address some issues like methane, considering the international nature of its emissions.  And how to respond to emergencies and oil spills in the region still remains unfinished business, he noted.

Major shift looming?

What is clear is that the U.S. chairmanship is likely to be a major shift from the approach led by the Canadian chairmanship over the past two years, which emphasized economic development in the north.  The leader of the council changes every two years among countries, with the State Department leading the U.S. delegation.

"Why do we need to act now?  We need to act now because I've seen the drastic changes that have occurred in the Arctic," Papp said in a speech last month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, describing how he visited the Bering Strait 30 years apart and was startled by the recent lack of ice.  "We must take care that economic activity in the Arctic is sustainable and does not exacerbate the effects of climate change and environmental degradation."

U.S. Takes the Helm of Council Assigned to Deal with Fast-Changing Arctic

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