IQALUIT, Canada — The United States and seven other Arctic nations vowed Friday to work together to combat climate change at the top of the world and put aside tensions over Ukraine and Russian military activities.
As the United States assumed chairmanship of the Arctic Council, a multinational group formed to address environmental and economic issues, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said that the Arctic is undergoing profound climate change at an alarming pace that will affect northern coastal communities and, eventually, the world.
“We’re on a dangerous path,” said Kerry, citing rising methane and soot emissions from diesel engines, airplane exhaust and wood-burning fires, all of which cover snow and absorb the sun’s heat, speeding warming.
“My government will work every single day with members of this council to prepare Arctic communities for the impact of this change,” Kerry added.
Noticeably absent was Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, missing his first Arctic Council biennial meeting in more than a decade. He cited a scheduling change, and Russia’s environmental minister, Sergei Donskoi, came in his place. Many suspected his absence was a reaction to criticism from Canada and the United States over Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Leona Aglukkaq, Canada’s minister for the Arctic Council, met with Donskoi on Thursday night and condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine, she said. She refrained from rebuking Russia in public, and said geopolitics will not chip away at the council’s commitment to cooperation.
Kerry said there are other diplomatic venues to address Russia’s military actions in the Arctic, such as one last month that involved 38,000 troops.
“The tricky thing is whether or not it would complicate what has so far been a functional process in which we are able address social, environmental and other kinds of structural issues,” he said. “To allow that to happen really could deter from the overall work of the council itself, which is why the council has regularly tried to steer clear of it.”
In a phone call Wednesday, Kerry said, Lavrov told him Russia wants to keep geopolitics separate from the Arctic.
“They want this to be a cooperative entity geared toward peaceful purposes, and it’s their intention to cooperate with us on the agenda we have set forth,” he said.
That sentiment was echoed by officials from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Russia itself.
“We are not naive, but this council and its individual members should shield our cooperation from broader political and geopolitical rivalries,” said Michael Stickman of the indigenous Arctic Athabaskan Council.
Donskoi alluded to the need to rise above the tensions as he praised efforts to prevent a major oil spill in Arctic waters.
“There is no room here for confrontation or fear-mongering,” he said.
The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on the planet. Melting ice has contributed to rising sea levels. As the permafrost thaws, it is releasing more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. New sea lanes are opening, prompting interest in exploring the Arctic’s rich resources of oil, gas and minerals.
“The Arctic is unraveling before our eyes,” said Rafe Pomerance, head of Arctic 21, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations researching Arctic climate science and policy.
Iqaluit, a town of 7,500 on Frobisher Bay, has been adapting to climate change for a decade.
A former U.S. airbase that was part of a radar system designed to detect a potential Russian attack during the Cold War, Iqaluit is in a boom in apartment construction to house government employees and mining workers.
More than half of the residents are indigenous Inuit who carry on traditional seal and whale hunts.
Mayor Mary Wilman said the ice once covered the lake well into June. Now, it will be too treacherous to bear the weight of people and their snowmobiles by mid-May. Wilman said hunters have complained of the increasing danger of venturing onto the thinning ice over Frobisher Bay that they traverse to reach their camps.
“The thinning of the ice in the last 10 years has happened much faster than we anticipated,” she said.