There are eight nations in the Arctic Council (Canada, Greenland/Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States). Each country has its own national agenda and authority to manage activities in their jurisdictions. Each nation is also attempting to balance environmental protection, economic development and social equity in their jurisdictions.
The area beyond national jurisdictions, the Central Arctic Ocean, was covered by ice most of the year until fairly recently. As retreating sea ice opens this area during the summer months to more shipping, tourism, oil development and other human uses, questions of governance of the area get more complicated. Is governance the responsibility of the Arctic nations, the international community or both? The Law of the Sea Treaty provides guidance for some activities, but it does not answer the values-based question about balancing the economy, environment and social benefit distribution.
The Arctic Council has focused on environmental protection and sustainable development since its 1996 inception. However, it does not have any treaty authority, and is not likely to obtain any in the near future.
Human activity in the Arctic will increase, and policies will be adopted by the governing nations to shape that activity. Since the Arctic is both vulnerable and valuable, the precautionary approach should apply, but it must be tempered by the rights of Arctic indigenous people and the socioeconomic goals of the people who inhabit the Arctic.
Decisions made by these nations must involve local people and ensure that those who live there share in the benefits from whatever development takes place. It is their home, they know the region best, and stand to lose the most if something goes wrong. They should also work to reduce risk and respect the region for what it is -- extremely challenging (remote, cold, dangerous, dark for half the year, with inadequate infrastructure and response capacity) and changing rapidly (environmentally, socially and economically).
Investment in research that supports informed decisions about managing activities in the Arctic and identifying areas that require protection is critical. The Arctic Council has provided excellent environmental assessments and reports on best practices, such as recent reports on ocean acidification, black carbon and improving safety culture in the oil and gas industry. However, it will take additional investment by both the Arctic Eight and many other nations to adequately fund and coordinate the research that needs to be done in this huge area.
Only with the support of the international community and the guidance of the Arctic Council nations will we find the right balance of environmental protection, economic development and social equity in this fragile and strategic region.
Fran Ulmer is a consultant of the Polar and Ocean Portal. She is the chairwoman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. She was formerly chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage, lieutenant governor of Alaska, a legislator and a mayor. She serves on the boards of the National Parks Conservation Association and the Nature Conservancy.