Secretary of State John F. Kerry took the helm of the Arctic Council on Friday on behalf of the United States, vowing to protect the delicate northern environment newly exposed by melting polar ice to the developed world's quest for energy and a swifter trade route from Europe to Asia.
Kerry promised to make the battle against climate change the first priority of the two-year U.S. stewardship of the council, which unites eight countries whose shores rim the Arctic Circle and who lay claim to shares of its oil, gas and shipping lanes.
Preventing catastrophic weather events and rising sea levels "is not a future challenge; this is happening right now," Kerry told the gathering at Iqaluit on Canada's Baffin Island.
"The numbers are alarming. The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on Earth," Kerry said. "Temperatures are increasing at more than twice the rate of the global average, which means the resilience of Arctic communities and ecosystems and the ability of future generations to adapt and live and prosper in the Arctic is tragically, but actually, in jeopardy."
Retreating Arctic sea ice brings opportunity as well as peril, Kerry noted, referring to the emerging summer shipping route across northern Russia that can cut a cargo ship's sailing time from Europe to Asia by nearly two weeks.
"But it is imperative that the development we pursue is sensitive to the lifestyle and history that people want to hold on to, and also that it is sustainable," he said.
The commitment to conservation expressed at the semi-annual council gathering is expected to run up against mounting pressure from big business to exploit the natural riches beneath the Arctic seafloor, where the U.S. Geological Service estimates as much as 30% of the world's untapped natural gas lies.
Those opportunities have set off a scramble among energy giants of the council member states, as well as other countries that claim a share of the region's bounty or an existential stake in how the demands of development and environmental protection are managed.
Thousands of miles away, Kiribati President Anote Tong urged the council to refrain from greenlighting development projects that would accelerate global warming, which threatens to inundate his and other low-lying Pacific island nations.
"The Arctic is far removed from my home, but it has a direct impact on the Pacific and the rest of the world," Tong wrote in an open letter to the diplomats in Iqaluit. "Allowing the Arctic to thaw even a little bit threatens to start a deadly cycle of warming that could quickly spiral out of control."
The Arctic Council was formed in 1996 to collectively manage the region emerging as North Pole ice melts, revealing new land masses, the Northern Sea passage and virgin undersea tracts ripe for exploration.
In the last four years, the council — made up of Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden — has crafted landmark agreements on coordinated search-and-rescue operations across the vast northern region as well as emergency response for containment and cleanup in the event of an oil spill.
The eight founding countries of the council were joined on Baffin Island by representatives of indigenous peoples of the Arctic, environmental groups and nations, including China, that claim as much right to the northern resources as the littoral states.
Ocean Conservancy's Whit Sheard, who represents a consortium of environmental groups at the council, said he was encouraged by the sense of urgency expressed on the fight against excessive development and the emission of greenhouse gases like black carbon and methane that accelerate rising temperatures.
"Considering the challenges facing the Arctic, it's easy to dwell on the negative. But I think today's proceedings give us some optimism that these incredibly complex issues can be resolved," he said.
Other environmental advocates, though, continue to sound an alarm over pressure on the fragile marine life of the north.
The U.S. government "continues to foolishly move ahead with highly dangerous oil leases in the Arctic," said Bill Snape, the Center for Biological Diversity's senior counsel, pointing to the Interior Department's recent approval of drilling permits for Shell Oil Co. in the Chukchi Sea. "We shouldn't be drilling in such a sensitive and important ecosystem just to pad the profits of the oil industry."
"We are on the cusp of a 21st century gold rush for Arctic resources," warned Margaret Williams, managing director of U.S. Arctic programs for the World Wildlife Fund. "The drive to tap offshore oil and gas reserves, the emergence of polar shipping routes and the push to claim previously untouched lands are driving development pressures like never before."
She urged Kerry to use the U.S. agenda-setting term as council chair to show the world that "the U.S. has the political courage to take the bold steps needed to wisely manage and conserve the region, its resources, and its wildlife" as well as protecting the livelihoods of the Arctic's 4 million residents.
Since its inception, the council has renounced authority in military and security matters, and its members have pledged to keep politics out of the forum. But that has proved difficult over the last year since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region and has been accused by Western states of fomenting separatist violence in eastern Ukraine that has taken more than 6,000 lives.
Russia was represented in Iqaluit by Environment Minister Sergei Donskoi; Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov skipped the gathering in apparent retaliation for Canada's no-show at a council meeting in Moscow last year in a gesture of censure over Crimea.
The Kremlin has aggressively asserted its claim on Arctic resources and declared the region among its top national security priorities when it rewrote Russia's military doctrine last year. Russia has accelerated the militarization of its northern flank with plans for 40 ports, airfields and radar stations a major defense enhancement program to which more than $500 billion has been committed.
The Kremlin has underscored its role in the Arctic with massive military exercises, including a readiness drill last month that sent 40,000 troops, 50 warships and more than 100 combat aircraft into and over the Barents Sea.
But Sheard said that replacing Lavrov with the environment minister saved the meeting from being derailed by the Ukraine issue, as important as it might be in the international political arena, and it allowed the officials of the eight council nations to achieve rare consensus on the urgency of fighting climate change.