Polar Notes

Feb 2020

What next for the Arctic Council?

The Arctic Council’s 11th Ministerial in Rovaniemi, Finland ended in unprecedented fashion last month when the eight Arctic states failed to sign a joint declaration.

The biennial meeting of ministers from Arctic states and representatives of the Permanent Participants (Arctic indigenous peoples organisations) is usually a straightforward affair. Formally, it is the moment when the chairmanship of the Arctic Council passes from one country to the next – in this case from Finland (2017-2019) to Iceland (2019-2021). Usually, this is backed up by a Joint Declaration, signed by all of the Arctic states to re-affirm their unified position on the goals and principles of the Arctic Council and guide its future work. However, the United States’ refusal to countenance any reference to climate change – and the refusal of the other Arctic states to omit it – appears to have caused a significant breakdown in the circumpolar consensus that had existed since the establishment of the Arctic Council in 1996.

The US’ intransigence with regards to the climate crisis has only hardened since President Trump withdrew his country from the UN Paris Agreement on climate change. There were already signs at the Arctic Council’s 10th Ministerial in Fairbanks, Alaska in 2017, that the US’ position was increasingly at odds with the rest of the Arctic states. This, despite the fact that the Arctic Council has, since it was established, consistently agreed that the Arctic Council is on the frontlines of climate change, more so following the publication of its Arctic Climate Impact Assessment in 2004. In the end, a Joint Declaration was reached in Fairbanks, which included references to climate change and the need for more research in that area.

This year though, as President Trump’s administration has doubled-down on avoiding action to address climate change, Washington appears to be more concerned about what the Pentagon’s latest Arctic Defence Strategy described as a new ‘era of strategic competition’ in the Arctic, between the US and its allies on the one side, and Russia and China on the other. Speaking on the day before the Arctic Council Ministerial, the US Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo, took the opportunity to highlight these emerging security concerns in the Arctic in a move that arguably overshadowed the Arctic Council, which has explicitly excluded the discussion of security matters from its mandate.

Finland, nonetheless, managed to chart a course through the disturbance to the Arctic status quo by swiftly preparing a ten-page ‘Chair’s Statement’, that was read out by the Finnish Foreign Minister, Timo Soini during the Ministerial meeting. Tellingly, the statement reads: “A majority of us regarded climate change as a fundamental challenge facing the Arctic and acknowledged the urgent need to take mitigation and adaptation actions and to strengthen resilience”.

A shorter ‘Joint Ministerial Statement’ was also agreed to reaffirm the Arctic states’ commitment to peace, stability and cooperation in the Arctic, and the primacy of the Arctic states in addressing opportunities and challenges in the region (in cooperation with the Permanent Participants).  

All of this threatens to overshadow what has been achieved during Finland’s two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which has focussed on environmental protection, meteorological cooperation, connectivity and education. It will no doubt also prompt intense debates about what all this means for the future for the Arctic Council – and in particular, whether the failure to reach a circumpolar consensus, which for so long has formed the basis of the Arctic Council’s approach, was a one-off.

Notably, by the time of the next Ministerial in 2021, the US will either have a new President, or an emboldened incumbent one. Whether that leads to a change in the US’ approach to both climate change and strategic competition in the region remains to be seen. Meanwhile Russia will be preparing to become the next chair.

Polar Notes is written by Dr Duncan Depledge and endorsed by
 James Gray MP (Chairman, APPG for the Polar Regions). 

Please send any comments, queries, or suggestions to info@appgpolarregions.uk. 

This is not an official publication of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. It has not been approved by either House or its committees. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions.