Climate change – it’s about the people
Living conditions and economic development in the face of climate change are the challenges the Arctic Council needs to deal with, Greenland’s premier says
When foreign ministers from the eight Arctic states gather in Nuuk next week, their host will have a clear message for them: it’s the people you need to focus on.
“It’s my job during the summit to make sure that we keep our focus on the people of the Arctic, and that what’s important is their livelihood,” Greenland’s premier, Kuupik Kleist, said.
The meeting marks the end of the Danish commonwealth’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council. And as Kleist, together with representatives from Denmark and the Faroe Islands, prepares to hand over responsibility to Sweden next week, he pointed out that the challenges posed by climate change appeared to be coming at a faster pace.
“We face an enormous task when it comes to adjusting to the consequences of climate change,” he said. “Scientists have been cautious about calling for action. Now they are being more vocal, but maybe they should have done so earlier. The challenges we’re facing will change the way we live, and they are coming faster than we had predicted.”
During the Arctic Council summit next week, Kleist said he’s prepared to speak for the people of the region.
“The world’s focus on the Arctic that began with climate change, and has since expanded to territorial claims and natural resources shouldn’t forget that, unlike the Antarctic, we’re talking about a populated region.”
He says the role of the Arctic Council has always been to represent the people who live there, not the polar bears.
“I’m here to make sure that happens. We’re here to speak up for Arctic populations and to make sure that their way of life takes top priority when states discuss their interests.”
Kleist was on hand at the birth of the Arctic Council in Ottawa in 1996, and has served as a representative for the Inuit Circumpolar Conference both as an MP and as Greenland’s foreign minister.
“I know the system inside and out – from the perspective of NGOs, as a lawmaker and as a government official,” he said, adding that next week would see him come “full circle” as he hosted Arctic foreign ministers.
During the Arctic leaders’ summit in January, Kleist received full support for his initiative to push to protect the Arctic way of life during discussions about common policy.
He said that during the past two UN climate conferences, first in Copenhagen and then in Cancun, melting ice seemed to be more important than the people of the Arctic. On both occasions, he tried to make sure people understood the Arctic point of view.
“We can’t give up our right to exploit natural resources. During the Copenhagen conference I argued that we have a right to economic development.”
“The eggheads in the West, who have enriched themselves by overusing the world’s resources are now telling us that no-one else can use them. But we need our natural resources if we’re going to generate the development our people need. The West isn’t going to pay us not to use our resources.”
Kleist called it a “dilemma” that people in the Arctic needed to exploit the same resources that led to climate change in the first place.
“That’s what it costs to establish reasonable living conditions, but because we’re seeking to develop an economy based on natural resource exploitation, we get accused of not caring about the environment or wildlife.
“The reality is that there’s no-one that has a greater interest in either than those of us in the Arctic. Our way of life and our culture calls for us to live in harmony with nature and wildlife.”
Climate change, according to Kleist, demands that wildlife be managed differently.
“The biggest challenge is managing fishing when you can fish year round. Some species are migrating north and others are moving in from the south. That requires us to be able to manage new types of fish.”
He also pointed out that because climate change “affects every aspect of the region” the Arctic Council needed to be flexible enough to adapt to what’s happening.
“We need to learn more, develop new technology, and it’s important for us to help each other and learn from each other.”
Part of Kleist’s vision for Greenland’s future is an economy that “isn’t dependent on one or two species of fish that are affected by climate change. That leaves us vulnerable.”
“We need to develop. We need to be less vulnerable. Our economy has to be based on more than one resource. Not just one.”
That development, he said, needs to involve education and investment.
“We can’t conceive of not being able to develop our economy. We need to exploit our resources so we can spur the development and economic independence that’s necessary as we adapt to climate change.”
Development, he said, shouldn’t come at a minimal cost to the environment and wildlife. “That’s what the Arctic Council can help us with.”
Secretariat and organisation
During its Nuuk summit, the Arctic Council will discuss whether the organisation should have a permanent secretariat, as well as possible financing. Also on the table will be the council’s structure.
Iceland and Norway have expressed interest in housing a permanent administration. Premier Kuupik Kleist reiterated that Greenland is not a candidate.
“We just don’t have resources for that,” Kleist said. As the summit’s host, he chose to decline to state whether he had a preference for which country Greenland wanted to see win the bid.
Another issue up for discussion will be whether to grant observer status to countries from outside the Arctic region. Countries such as China, Japan, South Korea, as well as the EU, have expressed an interest in sitting on council meetings, and France has already been admitted as an observer. However, there are no criteria new applicants must meet, and until the council agrees on them, no new countries will be added.
Kleist has already made it clear that if observers are permitted at Arctic Council meetings, they will not be permitted to add items to the agenda and they will not be able to vote.
“I don’t want to risk someone coming from outside the region and making decisions about our way of life, or prohibit us from exploiting natural resources. We risk that observers will argue that the environment and animals are more important that the people of the Arctic.”
Kleist added that he preferred to see the EU joining as a member instead of its individual member states.
“It would be unfeasible to have representatives from 25 EU countries attending council meetings,” he said, adding that the Danish chairmanship hopes that an agreement can be made on the observer status question.
First binding agreement among Arctic Council members
Collaboration among the Arctic states when it comes to search and rescue operations at sea will be the first binding agreement passed by the Arctic Council
The long-time Greenlandic goal of establishing an international mechanism for search and rescue operations at sea appears ready to become a reality next week when the Arctic Council signs its first ever binding agreement.
“We recognise that no single country can manage this type of operation, and we’ve been saying for years that it’s important for Arctic coastal states in general to work together on search and rescue operations,” Greenland premier Kuupik Kleist said.
Greenland has a similar agreement with Iceland and Canada. That collaboration will now be formalised and expanded to include all Arctic states.
The final details of the agreement won’t be known until it is signed, but for Greenland and Denmark it means that other countries will share responsibility for such operations with the Navy’s Greenlandic Command.
Once the mechanism is set up, it will likely require that emergency management organisations, hospitals, airlines and broadcasters be prepared to work together with other countries.
The Danish military’s Greenland Command has previously conducted exercises together with the Canadian and American navies and coast guards. Future military exercises will likely also include air force units.
The search and rescue agreement was penned as part of the Danish chairmanship of the Arctic Council.
New agreement in works
Countries to work together to clean up after oil spills
The United States has proposed establishing an Arctic Council task force responsible for laying the groundwork for a joint-Arctic framework for responding to oil spills.
Should states agree on such a plan, it would be the second binding agreement in the council’s history.
“This is something we’ve been pushing for for a long time,” said Greenland premier Kuupik Kleist. He added, however, that preventing oil spills would be an equally important task for the organisation.
In order to do so, he proposed establishing standards for oil exploitation in the region.
“We want the highest safety standards possible,” Kleist said.