The Arctic Council: From Achievement to Self-Reflection and Learning
Anniversaries tend to inspire kudos for past achievements, and the Arctic Council’s 20-year anniversary is no exception. We often hear about how it has created conditions for agreements on search and rescue, preventing oil pollution, and, recently, scientific cooperation. Even more important may be the many scientific assessment processes, which lead to new insights that influence policy priorities and research, such as those regarding the impacts of pollution on human health and the Arctic environment. But past achievements do not automatically translate into future success. Indeed, the current structure of the Council may fall short when the region faces issues that were not center stage when the structure for circumpolar international cooperation was created during the negotiations for the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy in the early 1990s. It is therefore useful to reflect on how old successes relate to the new demands that a changing Arctic landscape will place on the Arctic Council.
Climate change is a case in point, and its environmental, social, and political impacts exemplify the new landscape in which an international regional governance body has to operate. The issues are global and involve high politics, while many actions that are required for both mitigation and adaptation need to happen on the ground with the involvement of local leadership. Moreover, shared interest among Arctic actors cannot be taken for granted—rather, opposing viewpoints should be expected, given the contradictions between the goals of slowing down global warming and profiting from oil and gas resources. The way the Arctic Council’s operations are organized also poses a challenge for addressing climate change, as the issue cuts across all working groups, creating new demands on coordination and leadership within the Council.
Another equally complex issue is the impact of extractive industries on sustainable development, where local environmental and economic concerns are tightly intertwined with national resource security agendas and global markets, as well as with issues of power over decision making. Historically, extractive industries have had major impacts on Arctic societies, affecting everything from demographic patterns to major infrastructure development, yet, so far, the Arctic Council has paid limited attention to their role in sustainable development. Regarding mining, the Council has done practically nothing, perhaps because the main social and environmental impacts are viewed as local rather than international issues.
In both of these cases, one could argue that the necessary solutions do not align with the scope of a circumpolar international governance structure, and that the Arctic Council should focus only on issues that require cooperation among the Arctic states. However, given the fact that most issues facing the region have both local and global dimensions, such narrowly defined priorities would soon make the Arctic Council less relevant. A more proactive alternative is to focus on how governance should be organized in order to learn and adapt as new issues come to the fore, regardless of whether they are initially framed as local, national, circumpolar, or global.
Photo credit: PJ Hansen