Monday, May 16, 2016

Obama and Nordic Leaders:  Economic Activity in the Arctic Must Pass Climate Test

An iceberg with Mount Dundas in the background, in Qaasuitsup, west Greenland. (Credit: DEA / M. Santini/Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.
President Obama and the leaders of five Nordic nations agreed Friday to apply strict environmental standards and climate goals to commercial activities in the Arctic, a pledge that could have major implications for everything from future energy exploration to fishing and shipping in the region.

The communique the group will issue comes a month and a half after the United States and Canada agreed to impose a similar litmus test on future Arctic activities, meaning that Russia now stands as the sole nation that has not agreed to integrate these standards as a matter of routine policy.

Speaking to reporters Thursday in the White House’s Grand Foyer, President Obama said the residents of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Norway share Americans’ commitment to addressing climate change.

“We believe that we have a moral obligation — to this and future generations — to confront the reality of climate change and to protect our planet, including our beautiful Arctic,” he said.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö noted that the Arctic Council, which the U.S. currently chairs, can serve as an important forum to shape policies for the region.

“Mr. President, we are grateful for the leadership the United States has showed in combatting the most existential threat in the world — that is climate change — and focusing attention to the Arctic, where we are practically neighbors,” he said.  “The Arctic Council can be used also as an instrument of confidence-building.”
The Arctic warms between two and three times faster than regions in more southern latitudes, and it is experiencing record sea ice and glacier loss that could alter sea levels and weather patterns across the globe for centuries to come.

While it remains unclear what sort of restrictions these new standards could prompt —the United States still allows oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, as do Russia and Norway, though many firms are pulling out due to recent market and regulatory pressures — the announcement highlights Obama’s eagerness to advance his climate goals during his final months in office.  Every bilateral meeting he has had since a major global climate accord was reached in Paris in December has involved a discussion of climate policy.

“It is quite significant that you now have seven out of eight Arctic nations, representing more than half the Arctic’s territorial waters, basically conditioning future economic activity on world-class environmental standards and international climate goals,” said a senior administration official, who asked for anonymity because the announcement was not yet public.  “That’s reflective of both the possibility of Paris, and the president’s leadership on climate.”

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