The meeting of foreign ministers from eight Arctic nations in Greenland has concluded, and the result is a very mixed bag.
On the plus side, the Ministers went a long way toward strengthening the Arctic Council, and establishing it as a much-needed, robust intergovernmental policy making body for the Arctic that includes a unique and highly significant role for the Indigenous peoples of the region.
But unfortunately a strengthened Arctic Council saddled with a weak agenda doesn't get us very far – and that is what we have. We’re left now with a stronger institution that has set an unambitious, slow and tentative agenda, at a time when urgent, proactive and forward-thinking action is called for.
Take addressing the threat of oil spills, for example. The Ministers decided to negotiate a new international treaty on oil spill "preparedness and response.” While important, spill PREVENTION is missing from the mandate.
Sadly and tragically, preparedness and response didn't work terribly well in the Gulf of Mexico, which is perhaps the most well-prepared and robustly equipped region on earth. Imagine a similar disaster taking place in a raging ice storm, under feet of broken sea ice, in winds rivaling a hurricane, or fog that can ground aircraft for days on end, in a region that lacks ports, airports, villages or even roads over vast stretches of coastline.
Under these circumstances, prevention is our best hope. But instead of making it the central element of a new binding oil spill treaty, the topic ended up relegated to a working group that will look at the matter for another two years and develop recommendations or "best practices," code for voluntary measures.
And then there’s integrated conservation planning, which is essential to protect vulnerable Arctic ecosystems from the impacts of the multitude of industrial activities seeking to move into previously frozen areas. The Ministers agreed to a low-level process that will make recommendations “possible consideration" over the next two years. This leisurely, weak and uncertain response to the impending surge of offshore oil, shipping, fishing and other industrial activities is particularly disheartening.
This is especially true as more than 30 leading international scientists from around the Arctic have already identified the most important and vulnerable places in the Arctic that should be considered for conservation – providing a starting point to already move this conservation forward. These places were included in a report from NRDC and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature at the end of April, and represented the first-ever Arctic-wide identification of areas that are concurrently critical to preserving the health of Arctic marine life and increasingly vulnerable to stresses including global warming, loss of sea ice, industrialization, and ocean acidification.
In the coming months the Arctic countries will have opportunities to turn the modest agenda adopted today into opportunities for truly forward-looking conservation action. The world will be watching.