The United States is honoured to be chairing the Arctic Council for the second time since the forum’s founding in 1996. In my role as US Special Representative for the Arctic, I lead US Arctic diplomacy efforts for the State Department and serve as Secretary of State John Kerry’s coordinator for the US Arctic Council chairmanship. I have an extraordinary team of Arctic professionals to help me advocate for a variety of issues.

Our chairmanship theme, One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges, and Responsibilities, reflects the US commitment to a well-managed Arctic, a region highlighted by exceptional international cooperation. In partnership with the other Arctic States and Permanent Participants, the United States is proud to initiate wide-ranging work to protect the marine environment, conserve Arctic biodiversity, improve conditions in Arctic communities, and address impacts of the rapidly changing Arctic climate. 

The United States is an Arctic nation because of Alaska, so the needs of Alaska and input from Alaskans were important in defining our goals for our Arctic Council chairmanship. The Arctic Council is a consensus body and the US chairmanship priorities require agreement by all eight member states to move forward. During our 2015-2017 chairmanship, we aim to focus on three primary initiatives.

Improving economic and living conditions

Today, a rapidly warming Arctic is one of a range of factors threatening traditional ways of life that have endured for generations. Arctic communities face numerous challenges to the health and well-being of their citizens, along with concerns over food and water security, to name just some of the issues. Under the US chairmanship, we are prioritizing work in the Arctic Council on renewable energy and water security as well as telecommunications infrastructure by pursuing innovative technologies to address the significant challenges faced by remote Arctic communities. The US State Department is also helping to foster international scientific collaboration on key Arctic issues including water, energy, health and infrastructure through a new initiative under the Fulbright Program that will involve scholars from all Arctic Council nations.

Arctic Ocean safety, security and stewardship

The acceleration of maritime activity in the Arctic increases risk in an already harsh and challenging environment. US chairmanship priorities include building upon existing preparedness and response programs; enhancing the ability of Arctic states to execute their search and rescue responsibilities; and emphasizing safe, secure, and environmentally sound shipping as a matter of high priority. To ensure that future maritime development avoids negative impacts, particularly in areas of ecological and cultural significance, the Arctic Council is also continuing its work towards a network of marine protected areas and enhanced international cooperation in the Arctic Ocean. Ocean acidification is one of the most urgent issues facing the world’s ocean today, and the Arctic Council is responding by supporting research to improve the capability to monitor and track acidification in the Arctic Ocean.

Addressing the impacts of climate change

It is imperative that we address the impacts of climate change in the Arctic now before it is too late. Glaciers and land-based ice sheets in the Arctic are decreasing, Arctic coastlines are eroding, and permafrost is thawing across the region, threatening infrastructure and utility systems. We know that changes in the Arctic are not isolated to the region but can impact the rest of the world; likewise, what happens in the rest of the world can impact the Arctic. The impacts of climate change affect the Arctic and the many people, wildlife and plants that depend on the region for survival.

The United States recognizes that we need to reduce black carbon emissions (soot) and methane emissions, which disproportionately impact the Arctic, if we care about the future of the Arctic and its people. The Arctic Council is addressing the impacts of climate change by facilitating cooperation on action to reduce black carbon and methane emissions. The Arctic Council activities will also seek to enhance the ability of communities and ecosystems to adapt to changes by providing access to resilience tools such as sea ice prediction and advanced Arctic storm models. Finally, to better understand and effectively address climatic impacts, the Council will advance foundational Arctic climate science by promoting the development of climate change indicators and high-resolution mapping.

We are all challenged today to ensure we are ready to meet our responsibilities in the emerging frontier of the Arctic. While various parts of the Arctic may differ from one another, we are all still part of One Arctic. The United States looks forward to ensuring a successful US Arctic Council chairmanship including the accomplishment of goals and priorities that will benefit the people of the North and the Arctic itself.

[Read the article in the Shared Voices magazine here.]