No Polar Bears in the Qatari Desert – the Arctic at the recent climate negotiations

The position of the Arctic in the climate change negotiations is somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, the Arctic is in everyone’s mind as one of the key indicators of climate change. Did the whole community of climate researchers not have its eyes fixed on the day-by-day updates by the NASA reporting at the end of the past summer the unprecedented recede of Arctic sea ice?

On the other hand, the climate change regime does not specifically address or refer to regional aspects of climate change in the Arctic, neither as a focus for specific mitigation policies nor as a particularly vulnerable region that would require specific adaptation measures. At the Doha climate conference (COP18), the region was perhaps more than ever the elephant in the room. Are Arctic actors not interested in sharing their own experiences and securing a specific focus at the global level for the challenges that they face? Three types of Arctic stakeholders do play a role in relation to this question.

First and foremost, Arctic States are the most empowered stakeholders in this intergovernmental process. References to the Arctic actually echoed vocally in the main hall of the Doha conference centre during the statements delivered by the ministers at the end of the conference. While Martin Lidegaard (DK) emphasized his personal experience witnessing receding glaciers in Greenland, Peter Kent (CA) identified Canada as an “Arctic Nation” and emphasized the role of the Arctic Council in relation to both adaptation and mitigation policies. But these statements played only a very limited role in shaping the climate negotiations. No Arctic State put forward in Doha a proposal that would have enable the Climate Convention to contribute to address the specific nature of Arctic changes.

French & Scott highlighted in 2009 that the lack of specific focus in the climate change regime for Polar specific constituted a form of delegation of responsibility to the relevant regional cooperation forums. The Arctic Council was indeed present in Doha. But instead of organizing a formal side event as had been done at previous conferences, the Swedish chairmanship only hold a round table in the EU pavilion. In the past, the Council had certainly played an influential role as it highlighted the scale of the climate crisis with the release of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. This year’s contribution received however little notice, despite the emphasis in the official statement delivered by Lena Ek (SE) on behalf of the Arctic Council of the “spearheading” role of the Arctic states in addressing short term climate forcers. If the Arctic Council had played a precursor role to tackle this particular issue with the work of its task force on short-lived climate forcers, this impetus has now switched to the global Climate & Clean Air Coalition established in February 2012. The current legacy of Canada in the multilateral efforts to combat climate change does not provide many reasons to expect that the Council, once the chairmanship has been transferred to Ottawa, will play a more proactive role in climate diplomacy.

Finally, non-state actors used to fill the gap left by governments and share their concerns and frustrations at the annual climate meetings. This year the Arctic was however the theme of only one of the side event organized, with the European Space Agency showcasing its monitoring the cryosphere. Local communities certainly continue to seek remedies and forums to have their case heard (such as in the case of the Alaskan village of Kivalina claiming compensation from fossil fuel corporations). These groups seem however particularly blasé and disillusioned about the benefits climate change negotiations.

While climate change plays a defining role in shaping the future of the Arctic region, the absence of specific considerations in the global climate change regime might be one of the best symptom of the current shortcomings and failures of this process, with the voices of national governmental prevailing fully over more decentralized or regional interests. The opening of a new cycle of negotiations in December 2011 aiming at a 2020 global deal was perceived as an opportunity to give a new momentum to the climate change process. Twelve months later, judging by the position of the Arctic in these talks, it seems doubtful whether any lessons has been learned from years of deadlock.

Picture credit: Arctic Council and Flickr/Edgar Barany (Creative Commons)

If you want to know more about the Arctic and the UNFCCC and do not fear “academic” articles, you can check my last contribution to the Polar Law Yearbook: “Which Canary in the Coalmine?“.

This blogpost was originally published in the “Arctic Law Thematic Network”.