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Arctic Circle

The Arctic Council as a Model for Regional Collaboration

By: Fran Ulmer, Chair of the US Arctic Research Commission (USARC) from 2011 to 2020 and Joel Clement, Senior Fellow with the Arctic Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

In every region on Earth, climate change is threatening societies and ecosystems with a variety of extreme conditions, while resources to address these threats remain scarce. These conditions demand a greater reliance on international cooperation, science diplomacy, and a collaborative approach to regional priorities. A region such as the “Third Pole” would do well to examine how the Arctic Council structure for international cooperation has helped the Arctic as a whole address pressing issues, and how something similar might allow other regions to improve their understanding of environmental changes, prepare for likely social impacts, and build resilience for the future.

The Arctic Council, the premier intergovernmental forum for the Arctic region, was established after a series of convenings, agreements, and initiatives set in motion by Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Zone of Peace” speech in 1987, in which he indicated openness to a multilateral forum in the Arctic. With strong and persistent leadership from Canada and Finland, what began as the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy blossomed into the Arctic Council with the signing of the Ottawa Declaration in 1996. With equally persistent leadership and advocacy from Indigenous leaders, the Council charter included language providing for the direct but non-voting participation of Indigenous organizations of the North – a novel arrangement that elevated Indigenous voices and enhanced the Council’s regional credibility.

The Arctic Council is unusual among intergovernmental institutions in that it has no authority and no specific responsibility other than to focus on the way in which the eight Arctic nations can work together on topics of mutual concern. The framers limited the topics to two categories: sustainable development and environmental protection.

The Arctic Council has leveraged its consensus-based structure to create common ground and address international priorities.

Since its inception in 1996, the Arctic Council has expanded from a modest semi-annual convening for a small group of representatives from eight nations and three Indigenous groups, to an umbrella entity with hundreds of participants, six Indigenous Permanent Participant organizations, formal observers from states and organizations around the world, and a long list of significant accomplishments.

Despite its lack of formal authority, the Arctic Council has leveraged its consensus-based structure to create common ground and address international priorities. For example, the potential for maritime disasters such as the grounding of oil tankers or cruise ships in the Arctic is of interest to each and every arctic nation, particularly the five with coastal areas that could be directly impacted. Over several years, the Council, through the work of its Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment Working Group, gathered information, interviewed experts and developed consensus papers to describe the potential risks and alternatives for minimizing those risks. They focused on methods that the countries could use to coordinate responses, rather than each country simply going it alone.

The resulting Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), which was completed and published more than 10 years ago, is still considered foundational for ongoing efforts to make the Arctic Ocean shipping regime safer. It described the importance of coordinated response planning and communication among the responding agencies, and played a role in the development of the first two legally binding agreements signed by the Arctic Council Ministers – the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic and the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic. The working group and the many experts who were consulted to produce that AMSA report demonstrated that common interests could be best addressed with coordinated action, and that each country’s prevention and response capabilities would benefit.

Climate change is another primary concern of Arctic nations and residents, as the Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet, on average, and this accelerating trend is leading to dramatic economic, cultural, and ecological change. The Arctic is essentially one climate system, so understanding the true extent of change, whether it be sea surface temperature or water salinity, requires data from many different locations around the circumpolar Arctic.

Thanks to the work of the Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Working Group, the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna Working Group, and the International Arctic Science Committee, the first Arctic Climate Impact Assessment was delivered to the Council in 2005. Along with several updates, this coordinated international report has elevated climate change understanding for all Arctic nations and the world in a way that any single nation’s reporting had not. The Arctic Council was able to command attention and dedicate resources and international focus to this issue consistent with what each of the Arctic nations needed to know: the rate of change and how change was manifesting in impacts to both natural systems and human society. This coordinated effort benefited individual countries, the region as a whole, and the world, as Arctic warming has a significant impact on global climate.

Organizations based on both self and mutual interest have longevity, even when challenged by extreme conditions.

The deliverables of the Arctic Council can go well beyond reports. In 2011 the Ministers approved the development of an Arctic Resilience Assessment. When that world-class research was delivered in 2016, it was quickly followed up with the world’s first regional resilience framework to organize and measure progress of resilience efforts in the circumpolar Arctic. The Arctic Resilience Action Framework was approved by the Arctic Foreign Ministers in 2017, and called for an Arctic Resilience Forum to take place every two years to assess progress and identify gaps. The Resilience Forum in 2020, hosted by the Icelandic Chairmanship and delivered virtually over the course of 10 weekly sessions, featured nearly 100 speakers and over 1400 attendees. It was so successful that the Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group approved a project in 2021 to address community needs and opportunities discussed in the Forum.

These are just three examples, among many others, that demonstrate how the work coordinated under the Arctic Council has contributed to both individual and collective interests of the Arctic nations. The novel structure of the Council itself has also paid dividends, particularly with the inclusion of Indigenous organizations as Permanent Participants. While the Working Groups have produced world class research and reporting, and several international agreements have been signed, it is the work of the Permanent Participants that has kept the Council focused on the needs of the people of the North and the ecosystems they depend upon.

Another important element of the Arctic Council is the inclusion of “Observers” in the Council’s deliberations – be they nation-states outside the Arctic, other intergovernmental forums, or non-governmental organizations. While they are not at the decision-making table, experts from Observer states or organizations often populate the Working Groups and have elevated research, reporting, and dissemination of Arctic Council initiatives.

Commentators over the years have examined potential modifications in Arctic Council operations, such as broadening the potential areas of focus, clarifying the roles of Observers, and guaranteeing funding for Permanent Participants, but the Arctic Council model in general has received international praise. A byproduct of excluding national security issues from the charter has been that the work of the Council has persisted even during times of geopolitical tension, such as the Russian invasions of Georgia and Crimea.

This persistence in collaboration has led to an increase in the Council’s international stature, and even Nobel Peace Prize nominations. But Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has threatened the model and led to profound changes in the region. The seven other Arctic Council countries have decided to pause their participation in all regular business of the Council, while continuing to support those projects that don’t involve Russian participation. Two Arctic Council countries, Sweden and Finland, are now planning to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an unwelcome development for Russia. These disruptions in the status quo, while disastrous for scores of ongoing projects, may provide an opportunity for the Arctic states to amend and update the charter or operations of the Arctic Council to adapt to changes that have taken place in the Arctic since the Council’s inception over 25 years ago.

Regardless of how Arctic states adapt to the recent disruptions, the lessons learned from the Arctic Council experience may be useful to other regions. Organizations based on both self and mutual interest have longevity, even when challenged by extreme conditions. The success of the Arctic Council can be attributed to the manner by which it provides a forum for the Arctic states and the people of the region to jointly address mutual priorities, combined with a reliance on science, deliberation, and evolving mutual trust. For other regions the challenges may be different than those in the Arctic, but long-term success will benefit from such science-based collaborative structures.

Fran Ulmer and Joel Clement are Senior Fellows at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Arctic Initiative

No. 11/2022, 28 December 2022

This article is a part of the Arctic Circle Journal Series which provides insight, understanding and new information. The material represents the opinions of the author but not those of Arctic Circle.

Frances A. Ulmer 

Chair of the US Arctic Research Commission (USARC) from 2011 to 2020

Ms. Ulmer was the Chair of the US Arctic Research Commission (USARC) from 2011 to 2020. In 2014, Secretary Kerry asked Ms. Ulmer to serve as a Special Advisor on Arctic Science and Policy. From 2007 to 2011, Ms. Ulmer served as Chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage(UAA), Alaska’s largest public university. Previously, she was a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at UAA. In 2018, she was a visiting professor at Stanford University and currently is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center. Ms. Ulmer served as an elected official for 18 years as the mayor of Juneau, a state representative and as Lieutenant Governor of Alaska. She previously worked as legal counsel to the Alaska Legislature, legislative assistant to Governor Jay Hammond and Director of Policy Development for the state. She has served on numerous state and national boards including the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling in 2010, the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, the first Chair of the Alaska Coastal Policy Council, co chair of the Aspen Institute' s Commission on Arctic Climate Change, the National Parks Conservation Association Board and she currently chairs the Global Board of the Nature Conservancy. Ms. Ulmer lives in Anchorage, Alaska.

Joel Clement

Senior Fellow with the Arctic Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Joel Clement is a Senior Fellow with the Arctic Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Prior to joining the Belfer Center, Mr. Clement served as an executive for seven years at the U.S. Department of the Interior. In 2017 he blew the whistle on the Trump Administration for ignoring the impacts of climate change on Alaska Native health and safety.

Since then he has received multiple awards for ethics, courage, and his dedication to the role of science in public policy. He has been featured and interviewed on CNN, MSNBC, PBS, ABC, NBC, CBS, and Democracy Now and has been published by the Washington Post, Denver Post, The Guardian, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, The Hill, NBCThink, and Scientific American. Before serving in the federal Government, Mr. Clement was the Conservation Science Program Officer for a private foundation focusing on climate change adaptation strategies and landscape-scale conservation.