In the Arctic, the warming continues, despite the harsh winter of 2011 in much of North America: the extent of winter ice was less than the recent average once again, and the Great Melt continues. So what else is happening?
The Arctic Council meets this week at Nuuk, in Greenland, and an 8-nation treaty on search-and-rescue jurisdiction is going to be signed. This is, on one hand, an excellent step forward, as the nations agree who will have responsibility, and where, across the Arctic Ocean. The Globe and Mail has published a draft map of where the international boundaries will lie. Foreign Ministers from all but Canada will be there, including Hillary Clinton. Canada just lost its Foreign Minister in an election, and the health Minister Leona Aglukkaq will represent Canada: a nice little irony, as otherwise no aboriginal voice will be anywhere near the meeting.
On the other hand, almost all the contentious issues remain.
Who has rights to the extensive oil and gas everyone believes lie waiting to be tapped? All the participants signing the current treaty agree the boundaries they have drawn for search-and-rescue jurisdiction have little relationship with boundaries related to exploration and exploitation of gas and oil fields.
Oil companies, including Shell and Cairns, are extend their drilling in the Arctic, and you would think the memories of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, not to mention the lessons learned, would ensure the best safety measures would be in place. They aren’t. The risks appear to be even greater. There will be spills in the Arctic Ocean, the pollution could be devastating, and there is little serious preparation in the works.
Who owns the shipping lanes? Does Canada own most of the Northwest Passage, and Russia almost all of the Northeast Passage? Canada and Russia assume so, but probably no one else does. China, South Korea and Japan all want a voice in such decisions, and are clamouring for at least observer status at Arctic Council meetings.
Fishing rights are barely on the table, yet the Arctic marine ecosystem is going to shift with the warming and the loss of ice. The moratorium of federal fishing in the US sector is helpful, and Canada appears to be about to do the same for the Beaufort Sea, but no international agreements yet exist.
The status of the US voice in all of this also remains ambiguous, for the US still has not ratified the UN Law of the Sea even though almost every other nation in the world has done so. Even the US military now wants that treaty ratified by the US, but fear of right wing criticism of anything related to the UN and to international treaties continues to prevent congressional action.
And what of the impact of the melting of the permafrost, the rising sea, and the other radical changes associated with the warming climate? What of the impending economic development of the Arctic? What of the Inuit communities ringing the Arctic? The absence of aboriginal representation raises familiar and disturbing questions.
So a little celebration could be called for – treaties like this are rare. But it is a very small step, and time is short.