Arctic Council meeting ends, climate change among topics

A contingent of senior Arctic Council officials wrapped up a three-day meeting at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Thursday. And Friday morning, the U.S. chairman of the group reported on their deliberations, much of which dealt with the impact of climate change on the Arctic and how to adapt to it.

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U.S. Ambassador David Balton says on the final day of the Senior Arctic Officials’ meeting, he challenged participants to break out of what tends to be a short-term mindset that comes with the two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the organization that represents the interests of the eight circumpolar nations and other groups, such as the region’s indigenous peoples.

“We embarked on a fairly extraordinary discussion of what the Arctic Council might be doing differently with respect to dealing with climate change in the wake of the Paris agreement,” Balton said.

That’s the agreement that came out of the United Nations conference in December that calls for international action to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, or about 3-and-a-half degrees Fahrenheit.

But average temperatures in the Arctic have already risen about that much. And Balton says the Senior Arctic Officials realize that lends an urgency to the Arctic Council’s response.

“We need to understand this better,” said Balton. “How can we help local communities adapt to climate change in the north? What does it mean for the rest of the planet? Those were fairly intense discussions involving the scientists and policymakers looking ahead five, ten, twenty years.”

Adapting to climate change was high up on the agenda for the Senior Arctic Officials meeting, along with other issues, especially resource extraction and concerns over the health of people who live in the region.

Balton says the Arctic Council and its member nations have launched projects to help circumpolar communities adapt to the changing climate. For example, efforts to enable development of small-scale electrical systems, so-called micro-grids – including some powered by renewable energy sources such as wind or hydro.

“Some of the initiatives that we launched almost a year ago are still in train, of course, but one of them is to create an academy for studying and actually putting into place renewable energy technologies in remote communities in place like Alaska,” Balton said.

Balton also cited U.S. efforts to build support for funding adaption by promoting awareness of climate change impact on the Arctic. He says President Obama’s visit to Alaska last summer was the biggest example of that initiative.

“The attention and the media that followed really helped to make real the situation in Alaska, the profound and enduring interests of our nation in the Arctic region as a whole,” said Balton.

But Balton conceded Arctic Council member nations have not yet come up with a way to pay the multi-billion price tag for sustaining an ongoing climate change adaption program.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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