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Cooperation in Arctic governance must cut across all levels

January 8, 2016


Brandon Ray

Summary: Organizations, like the Arctic Council, have fostered international collaboration among nations and Indigenous groups on Arctic issues through nonbinding agreements. Greater collaboration between federal governments and Arctic inhabitants is needed for successful Arctic domestic policy to continue in light of rapid change.

The Arctic has reemerged on the international stage, largely due to rapid environmental changes. This reemergence has been accompanied by a new spin on government relations: cooperation through governance bodies that span nations as well as subnational populations. The Arctic Council is comprised of eight Member States of Arctic nations, six Permanent Participants of Indigenous groups that live in the Arctic, and over 30 Permanent Observers of nations and organizations who are interested in the Arctic. The Council has worked on issues from search and rescue and oil spill response to biodiversity and contaminants, to develop multilateral agreements for collaboration in the Arctic.

The drive to develop the Arctic will not result in the political “gold rush” that is implied in some news stories about the Arctic. With low oil prices, a glut of natural gas, and Shell’s recent abandonment of its quest for oil in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, oil and gas resources are not likely to drive development of the Arctic in the near-term future. In addition, shipping through the Arctic, while it has increased over the past several years, will not replace the Panama or Suez Canals for transportation. The insufficient lead-time for predictability of ice conditions, combined with limited infrastructure and search and rescue capabilities, make the Northern and Northwest Passages currently unviable for major container shipping. Most of the Arctic transit has been destination cargo shipping (i.e. natural resources). Furthermore, attempts to procure more natural resources through claims to extend nation’s continental shelves will need to go through negotiations with the United Nations before extraction can occur. Given these constraints and the increase in time they allow, the potential to strategically develop the Arctic in a sustainable manner exists.

The social challenges facing the Arctic in the near-term future, however, are dire: climate change has reduced the sea ice extent and eroded shoreline communities; contaminants have poisoned the food supply and diminished economic stability; populations are suffering a variety of psychological and social ailments through the stripping of cultural identity; and many decisions, affecting local communities, are made by politicians who have neither been to the Arctic nor elicited Arctic input. Arctic nations also have a history of disenfranchising their Indigenous populations. All of these issues affect the ability to sustain a traditional lifestyle; to which Sheila Watt-Cloutier, former president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, states in her recent book, The Right To Be Cold, that Indigenous groups have a right.

There has been some progress in trying to facilitate relations between national governments and Indigenous populations. The White House states, in its recent National Strategy for the Arctic Region, that, “…decisions need to be based on the most current science and traditional knowledge.” The Arctic Economic Council (AEC) and Pacific NorthWest Economic Region’s Arctic Caucus provide two examples of how this can work successfully. The AEC was created during the Canadian chair of the Arctic Council and is designed to facilitate “inclusive and sustainable” business practices in the Arctic. It is comprised of Arctic business leaders from each of the Arctic Council Member States and Permanent Participants. Similarly, PNWER’s Arctic Caucus is a partnership between Alaska, Yukon, and Northwest Territories to facilitate collaboration between the private sector and Arctic First Nations on economic development. These groups cut through the traditional silos of government to find local, workable solutions – yielding a working model upon which other organizations can expand.


Between the likely increase in time until the Arctic can sustain a thriving economy and the social and environmental issues currently plaguing the region, a more concentrated effort is required to develop programs that involve and benefit local populations. Scientists will venture to the Arctic for research; but often, the research is not conducted in consultation with Indigenous groups, nor do the results usually make it back to those communities. This lack of return on investment is common in the experiences many of these communities have. When governments refuse to act on the plights they have inflicted on their residents, these communities can lose hope as to their cultural survival. Policies that not only consult with Indigenous groups but that include them in the decision-making are the best solution. Decisions will be based on centuries of traditional knowledge of what works in the Arctic, thereby increasing governmental efficiency; and Indigenous groups can feel that the government values their culture.


This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.