The world received a welcome piece of good news over the weekend: Canada has passed off chairmanship of the Arctic Council, and it will likely be 16 years or more before we get it back.
That leaves the world plenty of time for real leaders to address the alarming environmental changes that are occurring in the region, and hopefully to curtail unwarranted energy exploration in the North, with all of its pollution risks.
The council meets every two years, in the country of the current chair. (The members are Canada, the U.S., Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland, plus all circumpolar indigenous peoples.)
Friday’s meeting in Iqaluit was supposed to be preceded by a showcase event in Ottawa the day before. The event was to celebrate the council’s accomplishments during our two-year stint in the rotating chairmanship, but it was abruptly called off.
The reason was politics. How would it look if senior Russian officials were invited to visit Ottawa for what is essentially a photo-op, while Canada/Russian tensions over events in Ukraine were so high?
It would remain for Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq to repeat Canada’s outrage over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its military support for rebel forces wanting to secede parts of Ukraine into Russia.
As it was, Russia already had received the message and didn’t care to hear it again. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had attended every Arctic Council meeting since 2004, but gave this one a miss. Environment Minister Sergei Donskoi came in his stead.
And in the due course of events, chairmanship passed to the United States, which wasted no time in announcing the agenda of the last two years has been ended.
The Arctic Council is no place for geopolitical messing around, while back doors were being opened for accelerated industrial development of the North, at the expense of the environment.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry assumed the chair and announced that the priorities of the Arctic Council have changed, starting now. Global climate change is occurring fastest at the poles, and addressing the results of receding sea ice, rapid acidification of the ocean, the collapse of permafrost, rising sea levels and general warming would take immediate priority.
“This is not a future challenge, this is happening right now,” Kerry said, adding that all member nations “must do everything we can to prevent worse impacts” of greenhouse gas emissions.
“The Arctic Council can do more on climate change,” Kerry said.
News reports of the change of chairmanship say the move was welcomed by the other members of the council, who also want to focus on the threats of a warming climate both on the land and on the people who live there.
Canada, for its part, has made no secret (or at least it has been a very poor one) of its lack of concern regarding climate change. In the minds of our governors, the best protection we should offer the wild areas of the north is a good dose of profiteering.
Thus the formation of the Arctic Economic Council, a self-selecting group of businesses that work in that formidably difficult region. The economic council was a chief highlight of Aglukkaq’s term as chair of the Arctic Council.
Except in corporate boardrooms, our current government has made very few friends globally for its environment policies. Rather, our government has made our country a global embarrassment on issues of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.
Remember when Canada’s global brand used to be our forests, glaciers, clean rivers and open, unpolluted vistas? Not so much any more.
So, well and good that Canada no longer drafts the agenda for the Arctic Council. Far better to be a follower, in the presence of better leaders.
The next decade is expected to be a watershed space of time for the Arctic. Either we will preserve what we can, or we will risk losing it all in the greatest global disaster in human history.
Activists around the world still hold out hope that with strong measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions, we can avoid the worst. Based on its record, the Canadian government scarcely gives climate change in general and its effects in the north in specific, a reluctant second thought.
The Arctic Council can be a strong voice, based on its highly industrialized member nations and historic indigenous peoples as stakeholders.
Let us hope that a rotation of strong leadership can help bring that about. Lord knows, leadership on the environment from the outside is the best Canadians can hope for.
Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org.