Fran Ulmer

“The most important thing for people to know about the governance of the Arctic is that we have a chance now to act to maintain the integrity of the system or to lose it. To lose it means that we will dismember the vital systems that make the Arctic work. It's not just a cost to the people who live there. It's a cost to all people everywhere.” - Sylvia Earle

Governance is “the processes of interaction and decision-making among the actors involved in a collective problem that lead to the creation, reinforcement, or reproduction of social norms and institutions.” In short, it’s the effort to make good decisions for society.

From my perspective, the news is good. Arctic governance is gaining strength, both within the US and internationally. Despite stressful changes tied to global geopolitical pressures and dramatic climate change, cooperation continues to be the theme in dialog, actions, and outcomes in the Arctic. The world’s ability to set aside sharp policy differences experienced at lower latitudes, in order to work together at the higher ones is, perhaps, a testament to the special value the world places on the Arctic.

Let’s start with the United States. The most recent phase of attention on Arctic governance began in 2009, in the waning days of the Bush Administration, with the update to the Arctic Region Policy (NSPD-66/HSPD-25). This policy document was reaffirmed in the early days of the Obama Administration as the first of several steps to build on that foundation.

It could be argued that one of President Obama’s enduring legacies will be his attention to the growing importance of the Arctic region, and the need to govern it well, both domestically and internationally. His recent trip to Alaska (and north of the Arctic Circle) represented both a significant symbolic and practical achievement. Appreciation was expressed for the Administration’s focus on and investments in climate change, renewable energy, enhancements to safety and security, and assistance to remote communities.

Good governance starts with reliable information, including results from scientific research. In a vast region with relatively limited access, it is particularly important to obtain and integrate as much relevant information as possible. To that end, in 2010, President Obama elevated the stature of Arctic research by directing the National Science and Technology Council to revitalize the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC), a coordinating entity created by Congress by the Arctic Research Policy Act of 1984 (the US Arctic Research Commission ( is another product of that legislation).

In February 2013, the White House released IARPC’s first five-year integrated Arctic research program plan. The plan’s seven research themes advance fundamental knowledge of the region, and help inform decision-making.

In May 2013, President Obama released “The National Strategy for the Arctic Region,” which focuses on three lines of effort, which are to: (1) advance US security interests; (2) pursue responsible Arctic region stewardship; and (3) strengthen international cooperation.

In January 2014, the White House released the “Implementation Plan for The National Strategy for the Arctic Region,” establishing the process and approach for executing the Strategy. These initiatives build upon existing efforts by federal agencies, state government, local, and tribal authorities, the private sector, and international partners. In January 2015, the President signed Executive Order (#13689) establishing an Arctic Executive Steering Committee (AESC) to focus coordination efforts, chaired by White House senior leadership.

The AESC helped plan and conduct the August 31, 2015 “Global Leadership in the Arctic Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience (GLACIER)” conference, hosted by the US Department of State, and attended by ministers and other high-level officials from many Arctic and non-Arctic states. The “Chair’s Summary” can be found here (; the “Joint Statement” here (; and President Obama’s closing speech here:

Although GLACIER was not an official Arctic Council event, its agenda aligned with the main focus areas of the Council: environmental protection and sustainable development in the Arctic. In recent years, the Council, established in 1996, has increased its effectiveness. For example, Council discussions initiated and resulted in binding, multilateral agreements on search and rescue, and on oil pollution preparedness and response. A third agreement is currently being negotiated to enhance and strengthen Arctic scientific cooperation. I hope this agreement will provide additional incentives to improve access and sharing of observations and information among all nations.

A recent example of progress toward effective Arctic cooperation and governance can be found in the topic of fisheries. Two consensus views emerged from informal discussion among parties from Arctic coastal states. First, that the commercial fishing industry may be enticed to the high seas region of Central Arctic Ocean, where waters previously covered by multi-year ice are increasingly experiencing thin ice, and even open water. Second, as minimal scientific research has been focused on the fisheries and ecosystem of this region, the state of knowledge about Arctic fish stocks is inadequate to support sustainable management of them. As a result, five Arctic coastal states signed a declaration in July 2015, agreeing to prevent unregulated commercial fishing in high seas portion of the Central Arctic Ocean. Other countries are encouraged to join them.

Two other examples are worth noting. One is the recent adoption by the International Maritime Organization of the mandatory Polar Code governing shipping, which enters into force in 2017, and addresses shipping requirements related to safety and the environment. The second is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which, by providing a firm foundation for freedom of the seas and the limits of national boundaries, reduces the potential for unresolvable jurisdictional issues. As many have argued, for years now, the US needs to accede to this treaty.

I remain optimistic that Arctic nations will continue to work together respectfully and cooperatively. It is in their collective best interest to assure the region is governed with clear rules reflecting the shared values of environmental protection and sustainable development. It is also in the best interest of future generations that all nations focus on actions that will protect this valuable and vulnerable region from melting, thawing, and transforming into an entirely different ecosystem. The health of the comfortable planet we call home depends upon it.

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