Arctic Council arrives in Fairbanks

Every hotel is booked up solid in Fairbanks this week, and rental cars are hard to find. Over a thousand people from 30 different countries are in the Golden Heart City for a meeting of Arctic scientists and policymakers called Arctic Science Summit Week. One of the highlights includes a meeting of the Arctic Council, a multinational governmental forum created to address the Arctic’s pressing issues.

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“Good public policy, including good foreign policy which is the main work of the Arctic Council, must be based on facts on the ground, which is to say it must be based in reality,” said Julia Gourley, Senior Arctic Official and the US representative to the Arctic Council.

Gourley said they rely on good, solid science to tell them what is really happening in the Arctic. That science helps shape their recommendations that go to key policymakers in various Arctic nations.

And it’s not just environmental science. Gourley says the Arctic Council recently heard about the latest in social science on the economy of the north, living conditions, and human development.

“These kinds of social science studies which have shaped the Arctic Council agenda over the years really have contributed much to how we decide what we’re going to work on in the Council,” Gourley said. “And the social science work, in particular, has contributed to very real topics in the Council such as mental wellness and suicide prevention, reindeer husbandry, the role of salmon as a key food source for the Arctic people, and other sociological aspects of living in the Arctic.”

The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental body that includes representatives from eight Arctic member nations and six permanent participant delegations from various indigenous groups. The permanent participants can provide input and advise the Council on policy issues. But they do not have a vote.

The Arctic Council’s recommendations are non-binding on participating governments.

There are also nearly two-dozen observers from other European and Asian countries, and intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations who are also allowed to sit in on Council meetings.

“I would argue, that with the Arctic Council, there’s a lot more dialogue going on with the nations that are engaged in Arctic dialogue than perhaps anywhere else,” said UAF Vice Chancellor Mike Sfraga

Sfraga is also leading creation of a new Center for Arctic Policy Studies. Sfraga says the Arctic Council’s work does not seem to be colored by other worldwide conflicts and disputes like Crimea and Syria.

“There are personal relationships, there are nation relationships that still have yet to be damaged by other international issues going on,” Sfraga said. “The tensions are there. But in the north there seems to just be a very different dynamic, and it is driven – of course – by resource development. But it is also driven by the fact that we have people reliant on the land, it’s a place where we have traditionally cooperated before, and there just seems to be a willingness in the Arctic Council, a consensus-building body, that we will leave the Arctic alone, as much as you can, from other international dynamics.”

The Arctic Council started their three-day meeting behind closed doors Tuesday on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.

Also on Tuesday, the Model Arctic Council wrapped up a seven-day meeting. Over 60 students from 13 countries crafted position papers and drafted policy recommendations on cruise ship tourism, managing maritime traffic in the Arctic, improving access to running water and sewer, and reducing suicide among various indigenous groups. Model Arctic Council members were surprised when they learned that their final paper, called the Fairbanks Declaration, will become the starting point for discussions among Arctic Council members next year.

This week’s Arctic Science Summit Week also includes hundreds of scientists from around the world who are coordinating research that is focusing on the effects of climate change on a rapidly changing Arctic.

Matt Miller is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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