Talks on preserving the Arctic amid a race for its rich resources opened Monday as protestors urged the meeting to focus on damage to the fragile region from climate change.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the summit in Chelsea, Canada, that “those who have legitimate interests in the region” should be heard amid anger from some countries and indigenous peoples that they had been excluded.
“We need all hands on deck because there is a huge amount to do, and not much time to do it,” the top US diplomat warned.
“What happens in the Arctic will have broad consequences for the earth and its climate. The melting of sea ice, glaciers, and permafrost will affect people and ecosystems around the world,” she said.
“And understanding how these changes fit together is a task that demands international cooperation.”
The talks brought together foreign ministers from Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States.
They were to discuss how to manage the economic opportunities and protect the fragile ecosystem in the frozen north, as the Arctic sea ice melts away and companies line up to drill for oil and gas.
“There is an urgency driving our efforts,” Clinton warned. “As the sea ice recedes and waters warm, we expect more fish to move into the Arctic. Where fish go, fishing vessels will follow.
“And in order to manage future Arctic fisheries, we need to be working together now to share what we know about the changing marine ecosystem.”
But protestors urged participants to also focus on the damage from climate change, and the so-called greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.
“The thing that people should expect and demand is an expressed commitment on the issue of climate change,” Michael Byers, author of “Who Owns the Arctic,” told AFP.
Dozens of protesters from Greenpeace and the Council of Canadians, a political activist group, decried the scramble for offshore drilling, saying Arctic mineral resources should remain untouched.
“When you think about it, three of the worst emitters of carbon dioxide on the planet… the United States, Canada and Russia are going to be around the table, and they’re going to be talking about the region of the world that is at the epicenter of climate change impact,” said Byers, a politics professor at the University of British Columbia.
“So if they don’t talk about climate change and they don’t talk about reducing emissions, then they will have willfully turned a blind eye to the biggest problem facing the Arctic today.”
The ministers were to discuss creating mandatory shipping regulations, setting maritime boundaries, establishing search and rescue protocols, and negotiating territorial disputes in the Beaufort Sea and the Barents Sea.
Byers said sea ice scientists predict that the Northwest Passage and the Arctic Ocean could be “seasonally ice free within the next three to five years.”
“At that point the entire Arctic begins to look like the Gulf of St. Lawrence or the Baltic Sea and you have effectively 12 months per year of shipping with ice strengthened ships and ice breaker escorted convoys.”
Aboriginal groups and several nations, including Iceland, Sweden and Finland, have also been angered at being left out of the talks.
“It is worrying that we see the development of an inner core of five coast states of the Arctic meeting outside the architecture of the Arctic Council,” British EU representative Diana Wallis said earlier this month.
“This could seriously undermine a very precious cooperation and it has to be treated with some seriousness.”
The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental group of Arctic states and Inuit indigenous groups that meet biannually. Canada and others blocked the European Union from being granted “observer” status.