Arctic Council: useful, but maybe in a different way than you think

It's easy to make fun of the Arctic Council and the industry of academics and pundits that has grown up around it.

It’s easy to make fun of the Arctic Council and the industry of academics and pundits that has grown up around it. But is it really just a pointless jaw-flapping exercise, sort of like the Commonwealth or the Union for the Mediterranean, but with snowier photo opportunities?

Some criticize the Arctic Council for being toothless. It’s true it can’t force countries to do things they didn’t want to do already. Canadians are keen on asserting our sovereignty in the Arctic and not letting anyone boss us around. So is everyone else.

But as Winston Churchill said, “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” The council does help member-state governments understand each other better, share knowledge and talk about solutions to shared problems. This may sound vague, but having regular meetings where top officials like US Secretary of State John Kerry are involved can give a lot of bureaucratic momentum to previously neglected issues.

This is important, given how many big issues are on the Arctic agenda. There is climate change, which is affecting local people and the environment, as well as opening up the Arctic Ocean to tourism, shipping and oil drilling. There is also the huge land grab currently underway through the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, in which Arctic states can claim vast tracts of “extended continental shelf.” Canada’s claim isn’t final yet but, to put this in perspective, Denmark has claimed nearly a million square kilometres around Greenland.

The need for action and agreement in the Arctic is highlighted by the growing involvement of non-Arctic powers in the region. China and four other Asian countries became observers of the Arctic Council in 2013. The Financial Times, after describing the Arctic Council as a “formerly sleepy organisation,” suggested China was interested in climate change, shipping lanes to Europe and resources.

At its recent ministerial meeting in Iqaluit, the eight Arctic Council member states agreed to do 47 things. Some were just classic government-meeting talk, in which various issues were “noted” and reports “welcomed.” Some were politely hopeful. Probably no one who signed the statement really thought the Russians were planning to rigorously apply the new Arctic Offshore Oil and Gas Guidelines: Systems Safety Management and Safety Culture report.

But a bunch of the things agreed will push forward further useful inter-governmental work, often with close involvement of local indigenous peoples (not a usual feature of international diplomacy). For example, there will be new progress on the Arctic Economic Council, an Arctic telecommunications infrastructure expert group, further study on “black carbon” and its pernicious impact in the Arctic, and more study on a range of scientific and social issues. The group also “welcomed” a new report on Arctic marine tourism.

In addition to building relationships and increasing awareness, what concrete things has the council actually implemented? Here, the cliche about whether the glass is half-full or half-empty applies. Greenpeace, for example, has lauded council members for commissioning excellent scientific work and then criticized them for ignoring it.

One example is the Project Support Instrument, which was launched in 2014 to finance pollution projects. This sounds good, except that the Arctic Council established the PSI in 2005 and its website says its current balance is only 16 million pounds ($21 million). PSI is a worthy initiative, but probably too small to make a big difference.

Another example is the first binding treaty among members, which covered search and rescue and was signed in 2011. Again, this is a good thing. But, as Canadians who have run into trouble in the North can attest, just because we have a search-and-rescue treaty with the Russians and Danes doesn’t mean Canada’s antiquated rescue aircraft will get to you any faster from their bases in far away Trenton, Ontario or Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Our main search-and-rescue problem is not with the Danes, it is with the Canadian government. It’s as if the Norwegians ran rescue missions in the Barents Sea from an airbase in Paris, which is about the same distance from the Arctic as Winnipeg.

One reason the Arctic Council’s existence is a good thing for the people of the North is that it may end up shaming Ottawa into doing things it should have been doing already. Hopefully search and rescue will someday fall into this category, not least for Canada’s highly skilled rescue teams who have to risk their lives in ancient equipment thousands of kilometres from base.

When people criticize the Arctic Council for being ineffectual, what they need to remember it is really just an intergovernmental organization. It is the governments behind it who have the power and money to really take action.

Going through the Arctic Council’s 47 points, I was struck by how many are firmly in national jurisdiction. In many of these areas, Canada has a history of talking a big game but not following up with real money to make it happen.

Remember the sorry saga of our Arctic icebreakers (years late) or the Nanisivik naval base (now downgraded to basically a gas tank with a shed)?

Does Canada have a university North of 60 in the same class as University of Alaska Fairbanks or the University of Tromso in Norway? If a shipping barge gets loose in the Beaufort or Barents Seas, which country has a coast guard base to get it back? (In case you’ve been following the Tuk barge, GPS signals indicate it has wandered all the way to Russia.) Is it Iqaluit or Nuuk that is getting a new undersea fibre optic cable for modern Internet service? If a cruise ship went aground or leaked oil off Barrow, Alaska or Baffin Island, which situation would get cleaned up first?

Canadian politicians often position the Arctic Council as a diplomatic tool for Canada to encourage other countries to address Arctic issues. In reality, the Arctic Council’s most useful feature may be that it puts a spotlight on Ottawa’s neglect of the Arctic and shames it into putting money where its press releases are.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon

economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow

him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist

show or Twitter @hallidaykeith