As new leader of the Arctic Council, the US will focus on the region's Big Thaw

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Marco Werman: So, hockey rinks melting in Canada. Head farther north to the Arctic and it only gets worse--thawing permafrost, melting polar ice, and ecosystems being transformed by a climate that’s warming faster than any other part of the planet. That gives you an idea of what climate change is already doing to the Arctic. Now, for the past two years Canada has chaired the Arctic Council. That’s a group that’s supposed to foster cooperation between the eight countries sharing the Arctic region. But during that time, Canada has not been all that interested in focusing on climate change. That focus is about to change though, when the US takes over leadership of the council later this month. Fran Ulmer is the chair of the US Arctic Commission and a former lieutenant governor of Alaska. She joins me on the line from Anchorage. So, I gather when the US picks up the baton from Canada, it will put dealing with climate change front and center for the Arctic Council. What will the priorities actually be on climate change specifically?


Fran Ulmer: Well, specifically dealing with black carbon and methane. We know that those have a disproportionate effect on Arctic temperatures, trying to get some controls on that, lower emissions, is a high priority. We’ll also focus on adaptation. There are communities in the Arctic where coastal erosion, thawing permafrost is making some of those communities unlivable. So, giving to the people who live in these communities some of the tools that are needed to adapt to climate change is a very important part of our mission. A third  very important part is just raising the awareness about the Arctic itself, that it’s a place that really matters regardless if you live in the Arctic or not. Because what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. It has a huge impact on the rest of the world.


Werman: So, among the eight countries involved in the Arctic on the commission, a lot of economic interests at stake, and also some testy relationships. Russia, for example, has been pretty aggressive in staking out its interest in the region and it does not have the strongest record when it comes to climate and the environment. So, what do you feel is going to be the biggest diplomatic challenge here for the US?


Ulmer: Well, I would just say that generally in the Arctic, the eight Arctic nations have played well with each other. They have really had an emphasis on cooperation and coordination. Yes, it’s true that Russia has a great deal of the Arctic, it’s important to them economically. But I would say so far there has been much more cooperation than there has been conflict.


Werman: So, climate will be front and center but not the only priority for the US in the Arctic. Just briefly: some of the other agendas that you’ll be pushing over the next two years.


Ulmer: There are a number of things that will be worked on: renewable energy, water and sanitation, telecommunications, things that really make a difference in terms of the viability of the communities of the Arctic. There will be discussions about Arctic Ocean acidification and about marine-protected areas. So there are a number of projects under these three big headings: Arctic communities, Arctic Ocean, and Arctic climate.


Werman: Fran Ulmer, the chair of the US Arctic Research Commission and an advisor to the State Department for Arctic affairs. Thank you.


Ulmer: Thank you very much, Marco.


Werman: You are tuned to The World.