IQALUIT, Nunavut — The United States assumed leadership of the Arctic Council on Friday and made it clear that the attention of the eight countries that ring the North Pole has shifted from economic development to climate change.
“This is not a future challenge,” Secretary of State John Kerry told council members, who met in the chamber of the Nunavut legislature.
“This is happening right now.”
Kerry thanked Canada for its two-year term as council chair.
“It’s been a very important part of the council’s 20-year history and it has given all of us a strong platform on which to build.”
He promised to continue key Canadian initiatives, such as the creation of the Arctic Economic Forum, self-selecting northern businesses that meet to discuss opportunities and best practices. The U.S. will also continue Canada’s work to reduce black carbon, light-absorbing particulate matter that is a significant contributor to sea-ice melt.
But Kerry left no doubt that the primary focus of the U.S. leadership term will be dealing with the impact of Arctic climate change, which he pointed out affects the entire world. He said the U.S. will also seek to improve environmental protection in the region, including the creation of marine protected areas.
Kerry promised more work on ocean acidification, another result of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The fight against black carbon will include a search for energy alternatives to diesel for northern communities.
“We understand this is ambitious. We have to be ambitious.”
Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq spoke of the pride she felt in being the first Inuk to lead the council.
“It was a great honour for me, as an Inuk, to be the first Arctic indigenous person to serve as chair of the Arctic Council,” Aglukkaq told the meeting.
She said the council, which co-ordinates international co-operation and research in the increasingly busy and contested region, must continue to include the concerns and expertise of northerners to inform its work.
“No one knows better than the people who live here how to survive and thrive in the Arctic environment — this land of intense cold, strong winds, and darkness we face much of the year.”
This northern meeting is taking place under a slight diplomatic chill.
Council members have viewed with some alarm recent Russian activities in the Arctic, which have included large military exercises involving tens of thousands of troops — far more than any other Arctic nation has or could mobilize in the North.
Canadian Defence Minister Jason Kenney has called those actions aggressive.
As well, Aglukkaq has promised to take up Russia’s activities in Ukraine with that country’s representative.
Russia did not send Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Environment Minister Sergei Donskoi was attending instead.