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The Arctic is under mounting pressure. Climate change is warming the region at an unprecedented rate, and melting ice is opening previously inaccessible waters in ecologically sensitive areas to oil and gas exploration, shipping and destructive, industrial fishing.
The changes to both the marine and terrestrial Arctic environment are having a significant impact on local communities that rely on healthy ecosystems for food security and local commerce. The need for global co-operation to protect the Arctic is critical. To this end, some countries are proving to be leaders while others lag behind or, worse, are obstructionist.
The heads of governments of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden will meet this Friday with President Barack Obama in Washington, DC. On the agenda are pressing issues such as sustainable development, global security and, pertinent to these countries in particular, the state of the Arctic. This meeting is an opportunity for the six Arctic nations to chart a path forward together for the region and hopefully, it will lead to protection of this increasingly vulnerable part of the world.
The United States, while not perfect, has been a leader among Arctic nations in multilateral conversations on environmental issues. It has facilitated a moratorium on unregulated fishing in the central Arctic Ocean among the Arctic coastal states and is now bringing in other key stakeholder nations. It is an advocate for protecting the high seas of the world – which includes the Arctic Ocean – and asserted that position recently at a UN High Seas Biodiversity conference.
The US-Canada joint statement, released in March, set emissions targets, asserted the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge in decision-making and reasserted marine-biodiversity targets. The chairmanship of the Arctic Council, under the US since April 2015, has prioritised climate change and marine stewardship.
It is surprising and unsettling that the Nordic countries, often champions in international environmental issues, are lagging or taking what is closer to an obstructionist position on some key issues. Finland and Sweden are the better of the bunch, having supported protection of the central Arctic Ocean. This is particularly important for Finland, which will assume the Arctic Council chairmanship in 2017.
If Finland is going to successfully chair the Arctic Council and build on the positive steps taken under the US chairmanship, the government must align its Arctic vision with international climate commitments and resolve current tensions with its indigenous population, the Saami.
The right-wing government has failed to improve the Saami rights in new legislation, and are at the same time looking into a rail connection to the Arctic Ocean to transport oil, gas and minerals, which is feared to negatively impact the traditional livelihoods of the Saami and in particular the reindeer herding.
This has understandably sparked frustration from the Saami groups and will undermine the Finnish chairmanship, unless the conflicts are resolved. The position of indigenous peoples on the Arctic Council is stronger than in most other international forums, and it is likely that other permanent participants and member states will support protests raised by the Saami Council.
There are also major concerns about Denmark, Iceland and Norway, which continuously block progress toward protection of the Arctic environment. All three countries are resisting proposals for conservation and working against scientific recommendations in regional forums such as the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR), much to the dismay of the other countries at the table.
On top of this, Norway has so far done little to protect vulnerable marine habitats of global significance from destructive fishing in the northern Barents Sea and continues to open the northernmost parts of its waters for oil exploration, completely ignoring the risks of an oil spill and the imperative to act on climate change and move beyond fossil fuels.
It is important that the Obama administration use the meeting this week to bridge the progress gap to protect the Arctic for current and future generations. As climate change defines the future of the Arctic, the governments need a shared understanding of the boundary conditions that international climate commitments set for Arctic oil and gas.
Adaptation to the change requires a strong network of protected areas, including the unique central Arctic Ocean. This is an opportunity for leadership from Nordic nations at a time when it’s desperately needed. Let’s hope they rise to the occasion.
Sini Harkki is a programme manager with Greenpeace Finland.
Mary Sweeters is an Arctic campaigner with Greenpeace USA.