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President Obama and Nordic Leaders Could Protect the Arctic for Good — Starting Today

A decision on central Arctic Ocean fishing needs to be put on the fast-track, even if that means taking the decision out of the Arctic Council’s hands

by Mary Sweeters

May 13, 2016

Obama and Nordic leaders must unite to save the Arctic.

Floating ice in the Arctic Ocean. As the Arctic sea ice is about to reach its lowest extent of the year, Greenpeace is in the Arctic to demand that world leaders take action on climate change at the upcoming UN climate summit in New York.

© Christian Åslund / Greenpeace

By Sini Harkki, program manager with Greenpeace Finland & Mary Sweeters, Arctic Campaigner with Greenpeace USA

The Arctic is under mounting pressure. Climate change is warming the region at an unprecedented rate, and melting ice is opening previously inaccessible waters in ecologically sensitive areas to oil and gas exploration, shipping, and destructive, industrial fishing. The changes to both the marine and terrestrial Arctic environment are having a significant impact on local communities that rely on healthy ecosystems for food security and local commerce. The need for global cooperation to protect the Arctic is critical. To this end, some countries are proving to be leaders while others lag behind or, worse, are obstructionist.

The heads of governments of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden meet this week with President Barack Obama in Washington DC. On the agenda are pressing issues such as sustainable development, global security and, pertinent to these countries in particular, the state of the Arctic. This meeting is an opportunity for the six Arctic nations to chart a path forward together for the region and hopefully, it’ll lead to protection of this increasingly vulnerable part of the world.

The United States, while not perfect, has been a leader among Arctic nations in multilateral conversations on environmental issues. It has facilitated a moratorium on unregulated fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean among the Arctic coastal states and is now bringing in other key stakeholder nations. It’s an advocate for protecting the high seas of the world – which includes the Arctic Ocean – and asserted that position recently at a UN High Seas Biodiversity conference. The US-Canada joint statement, released in March, set emissions targets, asserted the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge in decision-making, and reasserted marine biodiversity targets. The chairmanship of the Arctic Council, under the US since April 2015, has prioritized climate change and marine stewardship.

It’s surprising and unsettling that the Nordic countries, often champions in international environmental issues, are lagging or taking what is closer to an obstructionist position on some key issues. Finland and Sweden are the better of the bunch, having supported protection of the Central Arctic Ocean.This is particularly important for Finland who will assume the Arctic Council chairmanship in 2017.

If Finland is going to successfully chair the Arctic Council and build on the positive steps taken under the US chairmanship, the government must align its Arctic vision with international climate commitments and resolve current tensions with the Sami communities in the north. The right-wing government has failed to improve the Sami rights in new legislation, and are at the same time looking into a rail connection to the Arctic Ocean to transport oil, gas and minerals, which is feared to negatively impact the traditional livelihoods of the Samis, especially reindeer herding. This has understandably sparked frustration among the Sami groups and will undermine the Finnish chairmanship, unless the conflicts are resolved. The Indigenous Peoples’ position in the Arctic Council is stronger than in most other international fora and it is likely that other Permanent Participants and member states will support protests raised by the Sami Council.

There are also major concerns about Denmark, Iceland and Norway, who are continuously blocking progress toward protection of the Arctic environment. All three countries are resisting proposals for conservation and working against scientific recommendations in regional forums such as the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR), much to the dismay of the other countries at the table. On top of this, Norway has so far done little to protect vulnerable marine habitats of global significance from destructive fishing in the Northern Barents Sea and continues to open the northernmost parts of its waters for oil exploration, completely ignoring the risks of an oil spill and the imperative to act on climate change and move beyond fossil fuels.

It is important that the Obama Administration use the meeting this week to bridge the progress gap to protect the Arctic for current and future generations. As climate change defines the future of the Arctic, the governments need a shared understanding of the boundary conditions that international climate commitments set for Arctic oil and gas. Adaptation to the change requires a strong network of protected areas, including the unique Central Arctic Ocean. This is an opportunity for leadership from Nordic nations at a time when it’s desperately needed. Let’s hope they rise to the occasion.

Mary Sweeters

By Mary Sweeters

Mary Sweeters is a Climate and Energy Campaigner with Greenpeace USA. She works to fight the undue influence of the oil industry in solidarity with communities affected by oil extraction, pollution, and climate change, and to advocate for a just transition to a clean energy economy. She is from Sonoma, California.

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