It's not every day that Finland kickstarts an international agreement. But in a few years time, the global community may well look back on this moment as the one that opened the door to an international treaty in the Arctic.
It's a first move in a complex chess match; a pawn gingerly edging its way onto the board. But it signals the beginnings of a shift that could mean a new political landscape for the Arctic. And it reminds us that movements can change politics.
Last week the Finnish government adopted a new Arctic Strategy that calls for a global sanctuary around the North Pole. It's one of the key demands of the growing Save the Arctic movement. Two or three years ago Arctic protection was a non-issue in Finland. Now they have become the first Arctic country to step away from the pack.
The Finnish government has long been in the "Book of Villains of the Arctic." A Finnish state-owned company operates two icebreakers that help Shell explore for oil in Alaska. Ships owned by Finnish people were (and still are!) used to find even more oil, which warms the climate, which allows more oil exploration, which warms the climate....
Last year Greenpeace undertook a series of actions on these icebreakers, and this helped to launch the movement in Finland. It has been extraordinary how much support and spontaneous, creative action this campaign has been able create. And the people of Finland have been heard in many political arenas. The Arctic is no longer the closed shop of a few interested politicians, officials, and companies.
In 2010 the Finnish Arctic strategy did not have a single concrete proposal about Arctic protection. The new Arctic Strategy, on the other hand, includes strong language on Arctic protection.
So what is happening? The eight Arctic Council nations have so far insisted on their right to use the Arctic for business as usual — which means oil drilling and major industrial activity. This new Finnish policy is different. It reflects the growing feeling among many millions around the world that the Arctic deserves protection.
We clearly hope that more nations follow the lead shown by Finland. There are signs that this might be happening already. As the dangerous activities of oil companies and industrial fishing fleets are exposed, no self-respecting government can ignore reality any longer. And as the public groundswell of concern begins to be heard by politicians, we hope they will choose to listen to those they represent.
Of course Finland’s new strategy still has lot to say about new economic ‘opportunities’ in the Arctic. This is a kind of Arctic schizophrenia: worrying about climate change and its risks to the environment while celebrating opportunities for oil and gas development in the Arctic. If we want to stop climate change, that will mean leaving two-thirds of fossil fuels in the ground. This obvious conflict is not even mentioned.
Still, the new Finnish Arctic Policy is a step forward. We applaud the commitment to encourage the other nations of the Arctic Council to protect the Arctic. Importantly they recognize the need for an Arctic Ocean Sanctuary, a place where the world can be confident that critical ecosystems are conserved as part of a 'whole of Arctic' conservation reserve system.
We also applaud the call for better oil drilling standards for oil drilling and exploration. It's simply absurd that companies can wreck the Arctic with little if any penalty. And the much-lauded Arctic Council oil spill agreement does nothing to protect the Arctic, or impose liability.
Now it's the turn of the rest of the Arctic nations to deliver on their rhetoric. The existing system of marine-protected areas is, to be blunt, pathetic: the lowest level of protection of any ocean, in the most vulnerable place on Earth. Together we can and will convince the rest of the Arctic nations to follow Finland's lead. Join us and help save the Arctic.
Dr. Neil Hamilton is the Senior Political Advisor for the Arctic campaign at Greenpeace International.