U.S. & Canada Promise Big Things for the Arctic

Very good news for the Arctic from President Obama and Canada's Prime Minister Trudeau. Their joint statement on Climate, Energy, and Arctic Leadership contains numerous provisions that promise a better future for the magnificent but fragile Arctic ecosystem shared by our two countries, and for indigenous communities that make their home there.

First on the list is the two leaders' emphasis on "cooperation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions - which will have an outsized impact on the long-term health of the global Arctic." Earlier this week, Alaskans were treated to the alarming spectacle of snow being shipped into Anchorage and spread on the streets to start the Iditarod Sled Race. Global warming has arrived in the North in a big way, and its threats to the Arctic are pervasive. Ice, snow, and permanently frozen ground are literally the foundation life in the Arctic, and climate change is rapidly eroding all three.

The President and Prime Minister agreed to implementing together the vitally important Paris Agreement in which 196 nations recognized the urgency threat of climate change and committed to concrete actions to combat it. In Paris, the signatory countries also, crucially, acknowledged that additional, more aggressive action will be needed to avoid its worst environmental, human, and economic impacts. To that end, the two leaders today agreed to "make further progress on climate action globally."

Obama and Trudeau specifically targeted the need to "advance global efforts to accelerate clean energy." An important part of that effort, both practically and symbolically, is their commitment to advance the well-being of Arctic residents through deploying renewable energy and efficiency technology in their communities. Done right, that will move those communities off of dependence on dirty, climate-wrecking fossil fuels while creating good local employment opportunities. NRDC will work to ensure that major federal funding is available in coming years to hasten this needed transition in communities across both countries' Arctic regions.

Importantly, the announcement includes several hopeful signs of resolve to ensure that oil and gas activity will not bring Deepwater Horizon type disaster to the region. The two leaders affirmed that like other commercial activities in the region, oil exploration will be held to the highest, science-based standards, and to meeting national and global climate goals in light of its full, life-cycle impact potential. That commitment to making safety and climate considerations paramount will dictate that development is truly sustainable. And offshore the Arctic coast, where high seas, ice floes, and other harsh conditions make exploration hugely risky and clean-up of major spills impossible, it should rule out drilling--as well as the harmful seismic blasting that precedes it. We look forward to the day when that step is formally and permanently taken. In the U.S., that's something the President can do himself, by withdrawing our Arctic Ocean from any eligibility for inclusion in future oil and gas leasing programs.

The joint U.S.-Canada announcement contains other good news for the Arctic as well. NRDC and our partners have long sought the pan-Arctic necklace of marine protected areas the two leaders embraced. They committed their countries to giving substantially more than 10% of their respective Arctic oceans that status by 2020. As the Arctic ice cap thaws in the face of global warming, a variety of industrial threats, including mining, shipping, and bottom trawling could wreak havoc on special areas with high natural and cultural values. Identifying them and putting them off limits is vitally important, particularly when combined with an ocean-wide ban on drilling that would protect them from oil spills that otherwise could travel thousands of miles and never be cleaned up.

Equally welcome is the President's and Prime Minister's call for a fishing moratorium in international Arctic waters and for low-impact shipping corridors to guide commerce that will increase as the polar ice cap recedes and to minimize impacts from ocean noise and other ship-borne pollutants. These are historic steps that both countries should be very proud of.

As the two leaders recognized, how this agreement is implemented will ultimately determine its impact. The resolve it shows, the principles it embraces, and the pledge of cooperation it embodies, all set the stage for major, much-needed progress securing the future of the Arctic region.

About the Authors

Niel Lawrence

Alaska Director and Senior Attorney, Land & Wildlife Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.