After the Gold Rush: Fairbanks Declaration marks the end of the beginning of the Arctic Council as an emergent multilateral forum

As the sun rises on Fairbanks, Alaska, host to the 10th Arctic Council Ministerial meeting, the city’s ‘Week of the Arctic’ celebration is drawing to a close. Three days of workshops and science presentations have left the impression that a new Arctic “gold-rush” is underway. Yet Fairbanks, which advertises itself as a “gateway to the Arctic”, feels more like a sprawling midwestern American town.

A day earlier, at the Fairbanks Morris Thompson Cultural Center, United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson welcomed Alaskan Indigenous delegates, while protesters from Defend the Sacred Heart of Alaska and Greenpeace shouted their opposition to the Republican administration’s policies outside. That same day, a letter-to-the-editor in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner suggested a novel way to pay off Alaska’s debt: Instead of dipping into the Alaska Permanent Fund, financed through windfall hydrocarbon and mineral royalties, how about a state-wide tax? “What’s going to happen when the oil companies say, ‘See ya’?” it asked.

Later that afternoon at a reception for arriving ministerial delegates, Tillerson, who is Chair of the ministerial meeting, admonishes the gathering Arctic Council officials: “There is much work to be done!” At the back of the room, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov looks on, having just arrived on his Ilyushin-96 jet from a meeting with United States President Trump in Washington, D.C.

Across town, an Arctic Council side-event held at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is just wrapping up. The executive director of the International Centre for Reindeer in Kautokeino, Norway, Anders Oskal, is presenting the Arctic Council project “EALLU – Indigenous Youth, Climate Change & Food Culture”. The audience, including protesters who stormed a closed Arctic Council Working Group meeting earlier, have all come to watch and celebrate. EALLU — a cookbook compiled by youth from northern Scandinavia, Russia and the Russian Far East — tells the story of subsistence reindeer herding. The project itself is a celebration of cooking reindeer as a way of life.

The inconvenient truth of the Arctic Council today is that climate change has irrevocably altered the council’s status as a decision-making body.

Roberta Burns, United States head of delegation and Chair of the Sustainable Development Working Group under whose guidance EALLU came to fruition, repeats for the audience some folk wisdom she shared with reporters a week earlier at a press briefing in Reston, Virginia. “As a guest at a reindeer herder’s table”, she cautions, “never accept the tip of the reindeer’s tongue”. Suddenly, a small, timid reindeer is ushered into the campus meeting room by a local Alaskan reindeer farmer. At the back of the room, chefs busily carve into a reindeer roast, handing guests plates of lean cooked ribs and meat. From the head table there are looks of consternation. EALLU, its authors say, is about ‘Traditional Knowledge’; not constructed as a declaration or political statement, but as ancient knowledge enacted in everyday life. Silently, under glaring neon lights, the reindeer takes in the proceedings and lets her feelings be known by depositing her own political statement on the tile floor in front of us. It’s not everyone who can sit comfortably through a meal when all their relations are on the menu.


All week long, the Arctic Council Secretariat has worked diligently with delegates and academic researchers to create an atmosphere of positive anticipation. A virtual cornucopia of research deliverables have been showcased at the “Arctic Interchange” forum, sponsored by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The assessments offered by the Arctic Council’s six working groups and five task forces paint a picture of a rapidly changing Arctic — bleak scenarios painted in optimistic tones about the possibility of a well-managed, navigable Arctic Ocean replete with economic opportunities, protected regions, and transformed Indigenous communities.

News from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment working group that the Arctic Ocean is likely to be ice-free by 2040 has already received widespread, international media attention. For the Arctic Council Secretariat, communication outreach is a serious business. It must guard against accusations of bias, like those recently levelled by United States Vice-President Mike Pence, in characterizing climate change as “a paramount issue for the left” that seeks to undo America’s competitive advantage in the world.


International Centre for Reindeer executive director Anders Oskal presents EALLU, a cookbook celebrating reindeer subsistence herding, at an Arctic Council meeting side event in Fairbanks.

Blessedly, acronyms are banished from Arctic Council Ministerial declarations. Still, it is impossible to read a declaration without a program guide — the Working Group and expert task force reports. For example, Adaptation Initiatives for a Changing Arctic, whose reports were welcomed in the Fairbanks Declaration (25), is an ongoing initiative of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Working Group. Three different assessments were produced for three different Arctic Ocean regions: the Baffin Bay/Davis Strait region; the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort region; and the Barents area. They are representative of diverse social and ecological conditions, but were also selected for study because they encompass adjacent Arctic national jurisdictions.[1]

During the Arctic Interchange week press briefing, Barents Bay report contributor Annika Nilsson of the Stockholm Environment Institute spoke of the need for researchers to look beyond the goal of adaptation, to what the impacts look like as processes at the local level, one of six “heuristics” set out in the another Arctic Council assessment, the Arctic Resilience Report.

“There is something else you want to achieve by adapting, human security, human well-being, …that’s the goal; there is also another goal, that relates to having the capacity in the future to meet surprises. So you might have a goal of food security, that is a very immediate goal, but you might also want to think of a goal that increases a community’s capacity to deal with surprises in the future. These might be — education or functioning institutions — so all these goals add-up to thinking about adaptation as a long-term process.”   

Today, the threat of global environmental climate change has given rise to the necessity of managing the Arctic as an ongoing, global experiment in human-ecosystem vulnerability and adaptation.

Henry Huntington, who consulted with local communities in the three study regions on behalf of the Adaptation Actions for a Changing Arctic initiative, noted it is not just the climate that spurs adaptation, but how we react to it:

“The closer we got to the local perspective, we got into things that weren’t necessarily about climate change, but things that could be affected by climate. If Climate Change 1.0 was about ‘the sea ice is going away and this is terrible,’ then Climate Change 2.0 is now ‘the sea-ice is going away and life is complicated.’”

Huntington touches a theme that preoccupies Arctic Council researchers, the idea that the communication of research results itself touches upon the idea of how to communicate risk. This brings into play the other major theme in Arctic Council research: sustainability science, which Huntington poses as a question.

“How do we communicate the information we have? If we think innovation is by definition doing something new that we can’t anticipate, we can’t then say we know what the five new innovations will be in a region. What we do know is we can foster the way people come up and act on their good ideas. So how do we create those conditions?”

A recurring issue arising during the press briefing was the need for improved Arctic governance. Oscillating between these two scientistic meta-narratives of resilience theory and sustainability science — theories of human-environment vulnerability and adaptation — Arctic states and Permanent Participants draw together the evidentiary threads to set direction for future Arctic research.[2] Arguably, the interplay of these ‘expert’ narratives with national goals is a crosscutting theme in all Arctic Council research. Taken together, they constitute the weft and warp of the fabric of the Arctic cooperation narrative, more often implicit, but sometimes explicitly articulated in Arctic Council declarations.

Prioritizing such research findings — in terms of future undertakings — is the task of those who negotiate the draft language for inclusion in Ministerial declarations. The day before the Fairbanks Ministerial meeting, a draft declaration is still circulating among Arctic state and Permanent Participants delegations. As the hours close in on the start of the Ministerial meeting, negotiated language is agreed to. For this Ministerial meeting, at least, what has been agreed to will be accepted as fair exchange and equal compromise.


The Fairbanks Ministerial meeting concludes the final year of United States’ Chairmanship of the Arctic Council. The Council is now launched into its second 18-year cycle of the rotating, two-year work programs that first began in 1996. The 10th Arctic Council meeting, with approximately 100 projects under its guidance, has as many ad hoc task forces, expert bodies, and subsidiary implementation programs reporting to it as it does official subsidiary bodies — the Working Groups — a sign of an ambitious agenda. Officials seconded from Arctic states normally lead well-defined research programs as Working Group chairs, but occasionally enthusiasm for a specific research topic leads to the creation of expert groups or special tasks forces. Under the Obama Administration, the United States Chair did not disappoint, with four task forces and expert groups appointed, as well as the commissioning of additional reports on regional Adaptation Actions for a Changing Arctic, an updated assessment of Snow, Water and Permafrost in the Arctic, and many more initiatives lead by subsidiary Arctic Council bodies themselves.

In terms of reporting on accomplished past research work, the Fairbanks Declaration is a fulsome document, but threadbare when it comes to new initiatives: the creation of the Task Force on Improved Connectivity (19); some older initiatives given a new life, such as a decision to invest the Task Force on Marine Cooperation with a new mandate, including the possibility of its becoming a full subsidiary body (12); and, significantly, instruction to the Arctic Council Secretariat to prepare the framework for an overall strategic plan to guide the Arctic Council’s work (34). In terms of institution building, the latter is perhaps the Arctic Ministers’ most important decision since authorizing the establishment of a permanent Arctic Council Secretariat in 2013. It may be that the Arctic Council, as an international institution has achieved maturity. Like global technology companies, the larger it grows, the more difficult it becomes to surprise.


Dr. Mikhail Pogodaev, Co-Project leader from Russia, presents on world reindeer husbandry traditional knowledge and perspectives from Republic of Sakha Yakutia, Russia.

Within the Fairbanks Declaration, Working Group, task force, and expert findings are received with varying degrees of political enthusiasm. The tone of the invocation preceding their introduction in the Declaration itself often says something about their probable trajectory from policy-based evidence to political action. For example, simply ‘noting’ the entry into force of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change disguises the fact that Arctic foreign ministers resisted a full-court press by the United States to expunge reference to it from the Fairbanks Declaration itself (the United States President subsequently disavowed ratification of the Paris Agreement). Similarly, damning praise may be sometimes worse than no praise at all. Accordingly, the final negotiated text of the Fairbanks Declaration on the report of the Black Carbon and Methane Expert group includes a series of qualifying descriptors, including “adopt”, “acknowledge, “note”, and “underscore”, all which serve as markers representing brokered interests that must be addressed during the project’s subsequent phase.[3] By contrast, the recital in the preamble, “Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the Arctic Council” under the United States Chairmanship, is an example of how the Arctic Council enjoins all its members to continued cooperation — even in the midst of serious disagreement — by managing to perpetuate itself as an important international focal point for social, economic, and environmental decision-making.

The marquee public announcement heralded by foreign ministers at the 10th Arctic Ministerial meeting was the endorsement of a new, legally binding Agreement on Enhancing International Scientific Cooperation. It is now the third legally binding agreement approved by the Arctic Council, following an Agreement on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic (2011) and an Agreement on Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response (2013).

In the Ilulissat Declaration (2008), political representatives from the five Arctic coastal states, not meeting as the Arctic Council, committed to the orderly development of the Arctic’s resources by agreeing to follow the legal regime set out in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Yet, as the United States is not a signatory to the convention, there is always an appetite among Arctic states for greater certainty when it comes to the international legal framework governing the Arctic Ocean. The prospect of new Arctic oil and gas drilling and new shipping supply chain linkages, which drove Arctic ministers to enter into their first two legally binding agreements, has led inexorably to the search for new ways to advance international cooperation within a non-treaty context. The Agreement on Enhancing International Scientific Cooperation represents a new best effort, consistent with Arctic Council past practice, to harness future potential regional conflicts to the wheel of science — or at least to ‘science communication’, as a way of managing public perceptions of risk.

Back in 2000 during the first Ministerial meeting chaired by the United States in Point Barrow, Alaska, Evan Bloom, then legal counsel and now co-chair of the task force of the Agreement on Enhanced Scientific Cooperation and Director of the United States Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs, could joke that the Arctic Council was what “mock-turtle soup is to the real thing,” comparing it to the Antarctic Treaty system. After the Fairbanks Declaration, a more fitting description might be “turtles all the way down” — an international body operating alongside other major international fora, such as the G7, G20, the OAS, APEC, the WTO, the Commonwealth, La Francophonie, NATO, and the United Nations.


The inconvenient truth of the Arctic Council today is that climate change has irrevocably altered the council’s status as a decision-making body. The original 1996 declaration among Arctic states, modelled after the goals first set out in the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (1991), was concluded in the wake of a series of global environmental disasters and newly recognized threats. With the Fairbanks Declaration, economic priorities have now gained ascendancy.

As an integrative principle for strategic planning, the concept of ‘reconciliation’ suggests a space where states with divergent interests might enter into a bilateral dialogue on specific concerns as a step toward consensus.

Leadership to organize the Arctic Council came first from Canada, but was made possible by Russia’s willingness as the former Soviet Union to engage in a cooperative approach to the management of the Arctic geopolitical space. Among other things, it was a by-product of the Leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev who, in his 1987 Murmansk speech, called for the recognition of the Arctic as a “zone of peace”.

Today, the threat of global environmental climate change has given rise to the necessity of managing the Arctic as an ongoing, global experiment in human-ecosystem vulnerability and adaptation — how else to describe the Paris Agreement on Climate Change? The ever shortening time-scale for forecasted climate change impacts — such as the ice-free Arctic Ocean predicted to arrive by 2040 — now falls comfortably within the scope of both state and international business strategic planning regimes. Accordingly, it is possible to subordinate environmental goals to national state and market priorities. With this changed outlook, new and different possibilities exist for the Arctic Council, as the emergence of the Arctic Economic Council as an advisory body attests. The exceptions to this new scheme for research prioritization, however, are issues relating to sovereignty and security. Within this context, the living conditions of Arctic peoples play a central role. Questions concerning sovereignty are indelibly linked to the status and welfare of Arctic civil societies. Here, as an existing arena, increased scientific cooperation is also intended to strengthen civil relationships at the same time as reducing the possibility of military conflicts.


In March 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then U.S. President Barack Obama met and agreed to seek new ways to address a changing Arctic. That December, they announced the United States-Canada Joint Arctic Leaders’ Statement, outlining a series of actions intended to create a sustainable and viable Arctic economy and ecosystem. Among these, Canada and the United States agreed to take actions to support the creation of low-impact shipping corridors, the science-based management of marine resources, and together pledged support an Arctic free of offshore oil and gas activity. However, following the November 2016 United States election of a Republican President, the incoming administration began telegraphing its intention to revisit President Obama’s commitments. Just prior to the May 11th Arctic Council Ministerial meeting, President Trump signed an Executive Order revoking the designation of U.S. waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea as off-limits to offshore oil and gas leasing. He also revoked the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area initiative, which promised renewed federal efforts to protect the seasonal migrations of bowhead and beluga whales, walrus, seals, and seabirds, and reneged on a promise to extend cultural and subsistence consultative status to Alaskan tribes within the region. Further to this, on May 23, President Trump’s budget plan for Congress proposed raising $1.6 billion over 10 years through the sale of oil exploration leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Reserve.

With the United States commitments in the Joint Arctic Leaders’ Statement all but undone, Canada has moved ahead on consultations with territorial governments and northern Indigenous leaders toward developing its own Arctic Policy Framework. Six weeks before the Arctic Council’s 10th ministerial meeting, Mary Simon, the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs’ Special Representative on the Arctic, released her final report, a blueprint for a new “Shared Arctic Leadership Model”. The centrepiece of the consultative report is an attempt to reshape the domestic relationship between Canada, its Northern territorial governments, and Indigenous Peoples by framing a proposed, ongoing dialogue within the context of new “Principles of Partnership”. Prominent among these is the requirement that parties approach the development of an Arctic Policy Framework through the lens of a dialogue on “reconciliation”.


In 1996, the emergence of the Arctic Council was a triumphant moment for Canadian diplomacy. To the credit of Arctic states, over the past 20 years, within Ministerial declarations, the language used to acknowledge Arctic states’ unique social, economic, and environmental responsibilities toward Arctic Indigenous Peoples has been steadily strengthened. However, the reality of the Arctic Council is that its most important work takes place during Senior Official, Working Group, and Task Force meetings. It is the influence exerted in these fora that ultimately shapes the character of the research committed to and delivered in the Ministerial meetings.

With the establishment of the Álgu endowment fund, the Fairbanks Declaration has set in motion a new funding mechanism intended to significantly increase the capacity for Arctic Indigenous communities to participate in Arctic Council projects (39).[4] The fund, once fully endowed, will provide Permanent Participants organizations with funding to support both core and project-based Arctic Council activities. Only the Inuit Circumpolar Conference has declined to participate. Over the past two decades, the federal government has provided funding to support the role of Canadian Permanent Participant member organizations within the Arctic Council. As not-for-profit businesses, some Permanent Participant organizations have survived for years by supplementing their meagre government contributions with monies sourced from charitable entities set up to solicit foundation donor funding. A fully subscribed Álgu endowment fund will amount to a radical extension of this experiment.

One of the lessons learned from the Saami Council is that, as funding sources multiply — and, with them, project commitments — strategic planning becomes increasingly significant in terms of day-to-day decision-making, even at the lowest level of partnership engagement.[5] Accordingly, as new opportunities for project partnerships emerge, the formerly financially beleaguered Canadian Permanent Participant organizations will likely be redoubling their efforts to strengthen their accountability frameworks and transparency to their elected representative institutions. Organized on the basis of subsidiarity, it is natural for these communities to seek input into the Arctic Council decisions affecting them.


Chief Gary Harrison, Alaskan delegate from the Arctic Athabaskan Council, and Gunn-Britt Retter, head of the Saami Council’s Arctic and Environmental Unit.


As directed by the Fairbanks Declaration, the Arctic Council Secretariat is also to submit a new strategic planning process to guide future Arctic Council activities for ministerial approval in 2019 (34). With multiple parties now engaged at the Arctic Council level, including global powers like China and India, it must be determined how such a strategic plan will accommodate differences in size, resources, and scales of activity among Arctic Council state members, observers, and Permanent Participant organizations. Will it simply become a document authorizing the intentions of the Arctic Council’s largest state actors over a multi-year span?

Canada’s proposed workaround for this problem at the domestic level, as outlined in Mary Simon’s proposal for a ‘Shared Arctic Leadership Model’, is to embed a “dialogue on reconciliation” within Canada’s new Arctic Policy Framework. However, with the United States’ pullback from the December 2016 Joint Leaders’ Statement, the loss of an Arctic Council partner has cast this new strategic initiative in doubt. In her June 6th statement to Parliament on Canada’s Foreign Policy priorities, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland suggested Canada would pursue a vision for a global ‘rules-based international order’ in all its multilateral fora, including the Arctic Council. Yet, Simon’s proposal for a “dialogue on reconciliation” as a theme to guide Canada’s strategic vision for the Arctic over the next decade, as a ‘soft power’ approach, could still find a place in Canada’s foreign policy.

The concept of reconciliation has many natural allies among Arctic states, not the least being the Permanent Participant members. Norway has just announced a proposal to create its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission to explore the repression of Saami peoples over the past century. This decision follows a similar initiative undertaken earlier this year by Finland. Beyond this, there is the opportunity to take up the notion of “reconciliation” within the context of former post-Cold War antagonists, regionally, among the Arctic Nordic states and Russia, and also between Russia, Canada and the U.S. Finally, as an integrative principle for strategic planning, the concept of ‘reconciliation’ suggests a space where states with divergent interests might enter into a bilateral dialogue on specific concerns as a step toward consensus.

Also, with Canada’s declared support for a ‘rules-based international order’ within the Arctic Council, the question arises: How will Canada proceed with respect to the interpretation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples within the Arctic Council context? It took more than a decade for Arctic Council member states to accept the use of the term ‘Indigenous Peoples’ within Arctic Council declarations themselves. As an interpretative instrument, the adoption of the United Nations declaration marks a transition in international law from considering Indigenous Peoples as objects, or populations requiring stewardship, to subjects with internationally recognized rights. Based upon the principle of a ‘dialogue on reconciliation’, one goal for a new Arctic Council strategic vision might be to search for agreement as how to systematically introduce the recognition of Indigenous rights into the routines and practices of the Arctic Council itself.


A week before the Fairbanks Ministerial meeting, United States Air Force F-22 stealth fighter jets scrambled from the Elmendorf Air Force base in Anchorage to intercept two Russian Bear bombers and accompanying SU-35 fighter jets off Kodiak Island in the Aleutian archipelago. It was the second time in a month that Russia’s military had tested the United States Air Defence Identification Zone’s perimeter.

For all the wonderful science on display at the Arctic Council, the Arctic’s security dimension is still never far from the spotlight. However, its most important battlefield has now shifted to the field of science, where Arctic states seek recognition for their claims to Arctic resources — including the exercise of their international obligations with respect to the rights of Arctic Indigenous Peoples. The Fairbanks Declaration marks the end of the U.S. Chairmanship and the beginning of the run up to the Russian Chairmanship in 2021, with Finland and Iceland Chairmanships serving as steppingstones to a potential rapprochement between two Arctic global powers — of course, with southeast Asia watching closely. This is not the ‘Arctic Council’ Canada imagined when it sought out international agreement to extend the reach of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy in 1996, but it is the Arctic Council it has inherited.◉

Photos: David Roddick

[1] AMAP, 2017. Adaptation Actions for a Changing Arctic (AACA) – Bering/Chukchi/Beaufort Region Overview report. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Oslo, Norway. AMAP, 2017. Adaptation Actions for a Changing Arctic (AACA) – Baffin Bay / Davis Strait Region Overview report. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Oslo, Norway; AMAP, 2017. Adaptation Actions for a Changing Arctic (AACA) – Barents Area Overview report. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Oslo, Norway.

[2] “Simply put, sustainability prioritizes outcomes; resilience prioritizes process,” Redman, C. L. 2014. Should sustainability and resilience be combined or remain distinct pursuits? Ecology and Society 19(2): 37.

[3] Adopt the first Pan-Arctic report on collective progress to reduce black carbon and methane emissions by the Arctic states and numerous Observer states and its recommendations, including an aspirational collective goal, acknowledge the importance of implementing those recommendations as nationally appropriate, note the importance of the continued work of the Expert Group on Black Carbon and Methane, recognize the gains that some industries have already made in reducing the emissions and intensity of greenhouse gases, including methane, and underscore the important role of industry in fostering innovative technologies to contribute to further reductions in greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants” (Fairbanks Declaration, 2017: 24)

[4] Developed by the Arctic Council Secretariat and put together by New York philanthropic fundraiser, once fully subscribed, the Álgu endowment fund, with head offices in Sweden, will allocate resources to Permanent Participants on an equal share basis.

[5] See: Interview with Gunn-Britt RetterNorthern Public Affairs, for details about the pressures, which drove the Saami to adopt strategic planning.

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