April 22 is celebrated around the world as Earth Day, a symbolic day of unity on issues relating to the global movement to protect our environment and to slow the pace of climate change. The Arctic, more than any region on earth, has come to illustrate the power of a unified response to the climate threat, with the Arctic Council (AC), formed in 1996, nurturing an enduring consensus among a diverse ecosystem of asymmetrical actors for over a quarter century.
But all that changed almost two months ago – on March 3, 2022 – when the seven democratic member states on the AC (A7) announced a historic “pause” of their forthcoming AC participation in protest of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While this is the first time the A7 agreed to suspend participation in AC activities, it is not the first time tensions over Russian aggression in Ukraine have strained the AC’s impressive track record for circumpolar unity. In 2014, after Russia’s first assault upon Ukraine, the USA and Canada jointly boycotted a meeting of the AC’s Task Force for Action on Black Carbon and Methane (TFBCM) held in Moscow on April 14-15, but they soon thereafter rejoined their fellow AC members in the spirit of Arctic cooperation.
The AC is a unique organization, with legitimacy that extends across the entirety of the circumpolar world, representing a diverse mosaic of states and indigenous peoples united in their efforts to protect their fragile ecosystems, environments and communities. It brings together the eight founding Arctic states, of which Russia is by far the vastest — spanning 11 time zones, with the largest Arctic population, most robust Arctic economy and most diverse mosaic of indigenous and minority cultures — and Iceland is the smallest, just under 40,000 square miles. It includes within its innovative governance structure the six indigenous Permanent Participants and a diverse range of state and non-state observers, allowing countries as far away as Singapore and as consequential to the world economy as China an opportunity to participate, regardless of their domestic governing structures or ideologies.
While Russia’s actions in Ukraine are reprehensible, pausing AC operations while Russia holds its rotating chair is as illogical as shuttering the UN General Assembly or putting a pause on meetings of the Security Council. Indeed, Russia’s portion of the Arctic represents fully half the circumpolar world. The issues facing the Arctic — of which climate change is perhaps the most pressing for all stakeholders, small and large — cannot be paused. There are no half-way solutions to the future of the Arctic, whether it’s peacetime or wartime — the stakes are simply too high.
There was a time not long ago when the AC confronted a deep division in its ranks that threatened the very consensus that serves as the foundation of its successful first quarter century. That time was just three years ago, in 2019. The offending member state was not Russia, but the U.S. The issue that drove a wedge between the U.S. and its fellow AC members (and other non-member stakeholders) was that of climate change, long a unifying issue for all AC stakeholders. But despite this temporary collapse in consensus, the AC survived. The organization proved as resilient as the diverse collective of Arctic peoples, states, cultures and organizations it represents. If the AC can survive that collapse in consensus, there is no reason why it can’t do the same again now.
Indeed, it must do so. As bad as things are, and as bad as they might become in the Ukraine war, now is not the time to suspend AC meetings, but instead to redouble our efforts nurturing Arctic cooperation between its diverse community of stakeholders and demonstrate to all the world a viable path for Russia’s return to responsible statecraft. On this Earth Day, we must look not only beyond the war in Ukraine, but ahead to a restoration of circumpolar unity, so that we can once again step up to face the dangers of climate change for all the world, together.
Barry Scott Zellen is a visiting scholar in the Department of Geography at the University of Connecticut and has authored or edited a dozen books on Arctic, indigenous and strategic issues. He lived in the NWT and Yukon from 1990-99. More about his research can be found at BarryZellen.com and SmallerPlanet.org.