The Arctic is getting hotter – so hot that China is claiming to be a "near-Arctic" country and wants to join the Arctic Council as a permanent observer. Singapore, India and South Korea – as well as Greenpeace and the Association of Oil and Gas Producers – have also applied for observer status.
Clearly, the melting of the sea ice and the opening up of new shipping routes linking the Pacific to the Atlantic, as well as the North's tremendous resource potential, are attracting a frenzy of attention. Canada, which this year becomes chair of the Arctic Council, has a unique opportunity to strengthen the leadership of the world's premier forum for intergovernmental co-operation in the North, just as global interest in the region intensifies.
Under Canada's two-year leadership, the council, which negotiates binding treaties, should seriously consider the observer applications of China, Korea and the European Union. Better to have China in the Arctic club that already exists; then it has to play by the rules and respect the sovereignty of the eight Arctic states that ring the North Pole. China, the world's top greenhouse gas emitter, has long had Arctic ambitions.
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, the MP for Nunavut, is in some ways a surprising choice as Canada's representative to the council, despite her heritage. Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, the U.S., Russia and Sweden are all represented on the council by their foreign ministers.
Still, Ms. Aglukkaq, who attended a recent "Arctic Frontiers" conference in Tromso, Norway, has the benefit of having grown up in Nunavut. "If we are to successfully navigate the future of the Arctic, we must build bridges between people who live there and the new realities," she told the meeting, a gathering of global politicians, scientists and industry representatives. She emphasized the need to promote development in the North, as well as to include Inuit traditional knowledge in scientific research. These are worthy goals.
However, she said less about preserving the Arctic's unique ecosystem, which is part of the council's mandate. Climate change is occurring twice as fast there as elsewhere. In 10 years, the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free during the summer. The council should consider how best to reduce black carbon, or soot, which accelerates the melting of sea ice. "The Arctic faces environmental change and adaptation and Canada needs to go beyond just a state focus," said Petra Dolata, a King's College, London professor who attended the conference.
The Arctic is home to one-fifth of the world's fisheries – as well as 13 per cent of global undiscovered petroleum and 30 per cent of undiscovered natural gas. The extraction of these resources will only exacerbate climate change, and lead to possible territorial disputes, oil spills, and an increased military presence.
Already, Russia is building up its Northern Fleet to exploit the opening up of the Northern Sea Route, while Canada, in its own modest way, has also been rattling the ulu by strengthening its northern military capability.
The sustainability and safety of the North and its people must not be compromised by commercial activities. Any new voices on the council should not drown out those of Inuit, Sami and other aboriginal groups who already have permanent observer status, but no voting rights. It will be a difficult balancing act for Ms. Aglukkaq, but also a chance for Canada to enhance its global standing as a circumpolar leader.