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Ice floes float in Baffin Bay above the Arctic circle from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent on July 10, 2008.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Coping with the grave and growing consequences of climate change will be the top priority at the Arctic Council as the chairmanship passes to to the United States from Canada, U.S. State Secretary John Kerry told the eight nation ministerial gathering in Iqaluit on Friday.

"The numbers are alarming and that's putting it mildly," warned Mr. Kerry, who has a long and proven track record in regarding climate change as among the foremost of 21st century threats. The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on earth, he said.

Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who chaired the Arctic Council for the last two years, said "Canada's deep commitment to the north and its people is part of our national identity" and listed among Canada's achievements the creation of an Arctic Economic Council, a group of northern businesses.

The U.S. will shift priorities.

"This is not a future challenge, this is happening right now," Mr. Kerry said as he outlined the rapid retreat of Arctic ice cover, the collapse of permafrost with resulting massive releases of the potent greenhouse gas methane as well as dire coastal erosion and the acidification of the Arctic Ocean.

Although Mr. Kerry praised the just-ended, two-year Canadian stewardship of the council, it was evident that the Obama administration will shift priorities from economic development to environmental protection.

Mr. Kerry said the eight Arctic Council nations "must do everything we can to prevent worse impacts" from greenhouse gas emissions, adding that priority had driven President Barack Obama's effort to conclude a major emissions reductions pact with China.

"The Arctic Council can do more on climate change," Mr. Kerry added, a view warmly welcomed by most of the ministers from the Nordic nations who had similarly focused on the threats to the Arctic and its indigenous peoples posed by global warming.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov boycotted the Iqaluit summit, apparently irked by the Harper government's insistence on using of the Arctic Council – supposedly a forum for circumpolar issues – to hammer Moscow over non-Arctic issues.

Instead, Moscow sent Environment Minister Sergei Donskoi, who last week was part of a delegation that visited a Russian ice station and tweeted the provocative message: ""The Arctic is Russian Mecca."

Whether Ms. Aglukkaq made good on her threat to "use the Arctic Council ministerial meeting as an opportunity once again to deliver our tough message to Russia for their aggression against Ukraine," wasn't clear but she was noticeably more curt in her introduction of the Russian minister than anyone else.

Unfazed, Mr. Donskoi said: "There is no room for confrontation or fear mongering, particularly from forces from the outside, Russia is against politicizing the Arctic."

Earlier, Ms. Aglukkaq told the day-long gathering in Nunavut's capital on Baffin Island that it was "a great honour for me, as an Inuk, to be the first Arctic indigenous person to serve as chair of the Arctic Council."

But Canada's focus on economic development irked some.

Environmentalists hailed the handover, hopeful that President Obama's focus on climate change and Mr. Kerry's longstanding commitment to environmental issues will better protect the Arctic than Canada's business-first agenda.

"During Canada's chairship, the oil industry was given unfettered access to Arctic leaders through the creation of the Arctic Economic Council," said Farrah Khan of Greenpeace Canada. "We're pleased to see the US is making climate change mitigation and ocean protection a priority."

Meanwhile, the British actress and activist Emma Thompson took a swipe at Canada and urged the United States to make good on its promise to make environmental protection in the fragile Arctic a high priority. "It should be noted that unlike its preceding chair, the U.S. is at least actively embracing climate change emissions reduction and environmental protection during its two-year mandate at the Arctic Council's helm," she wrote in a letter published in USA Today. "Protecting the Arctic from oil drilling goes hand in hand with protecting the world from the worst impacts of climate change. It would be utter hypocrisy to veto the carbon-intensive Keystone XL pipeline whilst on the other hand opening the Arctic to drilling," she wrote.

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