The Obama administration is pushing to make climate change a focal point as the United States becomes the new leader of the international Arctic Council, a move that is winning praise from environmentalists, even though it's unclear how it may translate into action.

This week, senior Arctic officials from multiple countries will meet in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, to hear the United States present its agenda for its two-year chairmanship starting next year. The council is a forum for nations bordering on the Arctic.

Many environmentalists are cheering about recent remarks from U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic Adm. Robert Papp Jr., who indicated via speeches that climate change would be a main theme at the council, with new efforts on things like controlling black carbon and reducing methane.

Greens say that opens the door for potential new actions to protect the pristine region and control emissions that are melting ice and spreading soot. "It really is a turning point," said Erika Rosenthal, a staff attorney at Earthjustice. But others caution that a too-aggressive stance could shift the council away from uncompleted priorities and possibly spur political tension.

"The admiral is barking up a slightly wrong tree," Charles Ebinger, director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said about the recent emphasis on climate change. The Arctic Council may not be the best place to address some issues like methane, considering the international nature of its emissions. And how to respond to emergencies and oil spills in the region still remains unfinished business, he noted.

Major shift looming?
What is clear is that the U.S. chairmanship is likely to be a major shift from the approach led by the Canadian chairmanship over the past two years, which emphasized economic development in the north. The leader of the council changes every two years among countries, with the State Department leading the U.S. delegation.

"Why do we need to act now? We need to act now because I've seen the drastic changes that have occurred in the Arctic," Papp said in a speech last month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, describing how he visited the Bering Strait 30 years apart and was startled by the recent lack of ice. "We must take care that economic activity in the Arctic is sustainable and does not exacerbate the effects of climate change and environmental degradation."

In additional remarks at the Center for American Progress, Papp outlined an extensive list of potential U.S. actions on climate change at the council, including implementing any council recommendations on black carbon, pushing member countries to reduce methane emissions and pursuing a formal postponement or a ban on Arctic fishing.

He also called for implementing recommendations from a report to build resilience in local communities, an inventory of fresh water in vulnerable areas suffering from erosion and contamination, and a renewable pilot project in the far north to move areas away from soot-producing diesel.

At CSIS, he further outlined three broad principles for the U.S. chairmanship, including one directly about climate change mitigation and adaption. The other two also touched on the issue: Arctic Ocean stewardship and improving living conditions for Arctic residents.

"Why would we not focus on black carbon? We are going to," said Papp, noting that an Arctic Council task force has been developing a set of recommendations for member countries on curbing and tracking the sooty substance produced from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels and biomass.

It's a concern for the Arctic because dark ice and snow absorb more heat and melt more easily. The council task force recommendations—which have not been formally released yet—are expected to outline new reporting requirements for black carbon emissions, among other things.

"We are going to work very hard to implement those. ... We will work with our seven partners as well to get them to do the same ... to inventory those activities that produce black carbon ... and to show actionable progress throughout the time we have the chairmanship," Papp said at the center.

Navigating through a sea of issues
He added that the United States would also work to implement binding agreements put in place in the past three years among countries at the council about search-and-rescue and oil spill response, and push for completion and adoption of the polar code at the International Maritime Organization, a set of proposed mandatory rules for ships operating in polar regions to protect the environment and prevent Titanic-like disasters. Arctic countries should "take the lead in making sure the [polar code] standards are adopted within countries," he said.

The Arctic Council can be a wonky body, with terminology about monitoring assessments and working groups. Formed in 1996, it consists of eight Arctic nations—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States—and permanent participants representing indigenous peoples including the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the Aleut International Association. In addition, there are several observer countries that can participate in meetings as well, including China and India.

While the council wields little direct power, it is a forum for countries to work out agreements among themselves, such as the legally binding pact signed in 2013 on oil spill response. It also is a venue for scientific reports, such as a 2013 assessment of ocean acidification in the Arctic.

For those reasons, the current themes from Papp and other U.S. officials on climate change could translate into significant results on the ground, according to some analysts.

That could be in simpler ways, such as providing a platform for scientists to develop protocols for measuring emissions from melting permafrost. Or it could be more formal agreements between nations on implementing provisions early from other international bodies, analysts say.

The proposed polar code at the International Maritime Organization, for example, is aimed at reducing environmental catastrophes and disasters in polar regions (ClimateWire, April 1). "There's nothing stopping the eight Arctic states from implementing the code early," said Rosenthal of Earthjustice.

The Arctic Council task force working on black carbon has been developing a framework for years, so the United States will be the first chairing country with an opportunity to implement the coming recommendations, Rosenthal said. While that may involve simple advocacy, it also provides the United States an opportunity to use existing laws for Arctic purposes.

As one example, the 2005 Diesel Emissions Reduction Act could be used via the annual appropriation process to provide Arctic-specific funds for weaning northern Arctic communities off diesel—their main fuel source, and a contributor to black carbon, she said. The retrofit equipment to reduce diesel emissions is well-established, so it's a matter of will and money, she said.

"If the U.S. showed some leadership, they could give the idea to the other eight" Arctic countries, she said.

With methane, there could be a similar push perhaps leading to additional assessments and an eventual agreed-on pot of money for demonstration projects, to repair gas leaks and capture the fossil fuel.

Yesterday, the Clean Air Task Force released a report on leveraging the Arctic Council to make progress on black carbon and methane (see related story). While not directly responding to Papp's remarks, the group makes formal recommendations on how to use the council to curb short-lived climate pollutants that have a disproportionate impact on ice.

One of the key things the council could do is work with oil and gas companies operating in the Arctic to deploy best practices, said Lindsey Griffith, author of the report and consultant to the Clean Air Task Force.

"There's a lot of flaring that goes on in Russia that is regulated but not enforced," she said as one example. Similarly, existing programs in Alaska could be leveraged more to shift communities reliant on polluting diesel to renewables, Griffith said. Another idea would be to push the International Maritime Organization to prohibit heavy fuel use in the Arctic Ocean, she said.

Meeting includes largest emitters
Other analysts said one of the biggest opportunities for the United States may be simply using the bully pulpit of the chairmanship more, to educate the global community about basic facts on the Arctic, such as a 14 percent decline in Arctic summer sea ice per decade since the late 1970s. Also, there is disappointment among the six permanent participants at the council that it is not looking more at carbon dioxide reductions, said Whit Sheard, director of the International Arctic Program at the Ocean Conservancy.

The six participants are sending a rare letter to officials at the Yellowknife meeting this week to urge greater consideration of CO2, considering that the world's largest emitters are in the same room at the council, said Sheard. The inclusion two years ago of observer nations like China provides a rare opportunity to hash out differences on CO2 in a smaller forum than the United Nations and then take some sort of agreement, or similar mindset, to international climate negotiations, Sheard said.

"I think there's just hope it can be a parallel process that moves this global process along a little faster because of having countries feeling the changes more rapidly in the room with the biggest emitters," he added.

However, the Arctic Council can be a slow forum, and there's no guarantee that what is presented this week at the meeting will eventually be the U.S. agenda. The climate change theme is not entirely new at the council, as Norway emphasized it during its chairmanship, noted Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

"The problem is, it's really hard to provide really pragmatic policy deliverables with such an overarching theme. ... Climate change and the policies around climate change have different meanings to each of the eight Arctic members," she said.

For Ebinger, methane and CO2 emission reductions are noble goals but perhaps more appropriate topics for the United Nations, considering the range of countries contributing to greenhouse gases. He noted that when Brookings put together a recent Arctic report, there was a discussion about bringing regulators together to share ideas, but some countries viewed that as a violation of sovereignty.

Papp emphasized the need to implement the existing search-and-rescue and oil spill response agreements in his speeches, but there's a risk of trying to do too much and diverting attention away from those council agreements, according to Ebinger. In his view, there's also a risk of overreach with something like a fishing ban, considering it is unknown exactly how climate change is driving fish migrations.

The nightmare scenario for a lot of people remains a major cruise or shipping accident, and there's not appropriate equipment in place—from helicopters to life rafts—to control the situation, Ebinger said.

While the council agreements have been signed, there has been little movement on the ground, outside of divisions of which country is responsible for swaths of the Arctic Ocean when it comes to search-and-rescue operations. A better focus than climate change would be to add teeth and commit resources to what's already out there, according to Ebinger. That is especially so, he said, considering the high costs of equipment.

"There's just so many things that need to be done with emergency response that I think we would do better in our chairmanship to pay attention to, and really start lobbying the Congress that serious money has to be spent if we want to pretend we are remotely a major player in the Arctic," he said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500