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The Climate Fight in the Arctic Needs Russia’s Help

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Thanks to climate change, Arctic wildfires are a growing source of destruction and carbon emissions at the top of the world. Thanks to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Arctic Council, the world’s most important diplomatic forum for policy-making in the far north, Arctic communities may not have the ability to coordinate studies, preparations and responses this year.

Seven of the eight nations that make up the council condemned the Russian invasion two weeks ago and paused cooperation on most of their work. As collateral damage goes, international cooperation on Arctic wildfires might seem insignificant compared to the carnage in Ukraine.

But as the climate warms, the Arctic’s role in the health of the global environment and economy can’t be overlooked. A warmer Arctic will alter weather, ocean currents and fisheries. Russia, with 53% of the Arctic coastline and 70% of its population, will have to play a key role in responding. For now, the other Arctic countries and communities must continue planning and responding to a hotter future.

For most of history, there was no need for international governance in the Arctic. Indigenous groups were widely dispersed and didn’t engage in the kinds of large-scale resource extraction that generate international friction. Bordering nation-states might aspire to exploit Arctic resources close to home, but the forbidding climate and conditions all but ensured that they wouldn’t find themselves in conflict with Arctic neighbors.

That thinking began to shift in the 1970s as science and technology made the Arctic more accessible. Climate change and the toxic legacy of Soviet-era dumping emerged as top concerns.

Commercial interest developed in the business opportunities that a warmer Arctic might offer, from shipping to mining. In 1996, the eight Arctic states — Canada, Denmark (which includes Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the U.S. and the Soviet Union — along with six indigenous groups, established the Arctic Council to address environmental protection and sustainable development.

The council lacks the status of a formal international organization like the European Union or the World Trade Organization, meaning it acts by the informal consensus of its members. Quietly, it’s produced some remarkably useful agreements, including legally binding accords on search and rescue and oil-spill preparation and response.

A 2018 pact designed to enhance scientific cooperation across borders has proven particularly useful, spurring research efforts across the region ranging from a recently released inventory of Arctic biodiversity to long-term assessments of the impact of black carbon soot on public health. It also coordinates a rich and diverse array of climate research.

It’s been less than three weeks since the council’s work was paused, so the impact is unclear. But an extended pause would surely be problematic.

Scientists fear that a range of research priorities, including the monitoring of wildfires, thawing permafrost and methane emissions could be disrupted by an extended interruption in data collection and sharing.

“Some aspects of climate change, such as working on black carbon, could be badly impacted,” said Evan T. Bloom, senior fellow at the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute in Washington and a former director of the Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs at the U.S. State Department. “It’s very hard to do that without Russia involved, especially if you want government action.”

Not all Arctic research involves Russia. Collaboration between international researchers at facilities like the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks, Alaska, will continue. The Arctic states and indigenous communities should use the pause to reallocate resources and prioritize research that can be accomplished without Russia.

But longer-term efforts to address the warming Arctic climate and related issues will require Russian participation. That won’t resume unless Russia ceases its hostilities in Ukraine. At that point, Bloom predicted, Russia will be eager to regain its leading role in Arctic affairs.

“Russia sees itself as a great Arctic nation,” Bloom said. “It’s central to their thinking. They don’t want to stand out in a negative way, perpetually.” The Arctic Council should acknowledge this aspiration by not taking steps that would permanently exclude Russia from international dialogue and research in the north, or lead to the impression that Russia’s participation is not valued.

The war will eventually end, but climate change and its impact on the Arctic won’t. To address them, the world will need to include the Arctic’s most important resident.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Putin’s Arctic Plans Are a Climate Change Bet: Leonid Bershidsky

• As the Arctic Heats Up, How to Keep the Peace: Clara Ferreira Marques

• Avoiding a Cold War in the Arctic North: James Stavridis

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.”

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