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Why a new “Arctic Circle” Forum?

Ships with icebergs

“Ships on ice”,  Spitzbergen 2010

While working on a story about the Arctic Council in the run-up to its next meeting in May, I was greatly interested by the announcement that there is to be a new global forum called the Arctic Circle. Iceland’s President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, made the announcement this week at an event held by the National Press Club in Washington. On the Arctic Circle website, the new organization is described as “nonprofit and nonpartisan”. The mission is “to facilitate dialogue and build relationships to confront the Arctic’s greatest challenges. We aim to strengthen the decision-making process by bringing together as many Arctic and international partners as possible under one large ‘open tent’. By facilitating circumpolar meetings of leaders across disciplines, we will identify truly sustainable development practices for the Arctic, the world’s last pristine environment”.

The background, of course, is the opening of the Arctic to shipping and commercial exploitation because of climate change. The organisers say the new open forum will help raise the profile of Arctic issues worldwide and discuss solutions “in a frank and collaborative manner”.

I met President Grimsson in January in what at first sight might appear an unusual location – the Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi.

Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber from Abu Dhabi’s Masdar company with President Grímsson

We live in an ice-dependent world, says Iceland’s President

He actually has close ties to the emirate, and was there for “sustainability week” and the World Future Energies Forum. He explained to me then his interest in making it clear that the Arctic is not just of significance to the High North region and the countries around it, but the planet as a whole. So I am not surprised that he is spearheading an attempt to open the region to the influence of other countries. Iceland has also been conducting a lot of negotiations with China, including a new free trade agreement announced by the President this week. As reported on the Ice Blog and DW before, China is increasingly interested in getting a foothold in the Arctic.

See China’s Arctic ambitions spark concern

Grimsson told Thomson Reuters the new forum was needed because “while most countries have a stake in the melting of Arctic ice, only eight – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States – are members of the Arctic Council”. The intergovernmental group was established in 1996.

China, India and Singapore are amongst the non-Arctic states seeking observer status on the Arctic Council at a meeting to be held in Sweden next month. The new “Arctic Circle”, on the other hand, would be open to anybody: “concerned citizens, representatives of ngos, scientists, researchers alongside governments and corporations.”

The first meeting of the new forum will be held in Iceland in October.  It remains to be seen who will sign up and how influential it will turn out to be. The formation of the group shows the Arctic’s rising significance on the international agenda. The question is which forum will turn out be the best placed to effectively protect the sensitive ecosystems and traditional lifestyles of indigenous groups in the Arctic at the time when international commercial interest is growing steadily. And with the burning of fossil fuels continuing to exacerbate climate change and no progress being made towards reducing emissions – who is to mediate in the conflict between those who want to profit from exploiting oil and gas resources in The Arctic and those who want to stop using it and shift to climate-friendly renewables? There are those who would like to do both. But as the saying goes, “you can’t have your cake and eat it” – or maybe you can’t have your ice and melt it?

Date

April 19, 2013 | 2:25 pm

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