BY MIGUEL RODRIGUES
It was the opportunity of a lifetime to serve as control officer for Secretary of State John Kerry’s participation in the Arctic Council Ministerial in the remote, frozen city of Iqaluit on Baffin Island, far north in the Canadian Arctic, on April 24.
With a population of only 7,500 and located 1,300 miles north of Ottawa, Iqaluit was a unique choice for a multilateral conference involving eight foreign ministers. Minister for the Arctic Council Leona Aglukkaq, the first Inuit in the Canadian Cabinet, selected the venue to showcase the Canadian Arctic to the world.
Iqaluit has a starkly beautiful landscape—endless, dramatic white expanses punctuated by low-rising ridges and pastel-colored buildings.
Aware of the challenges ahead, Embassy Ottawa addressed a slew of logistical constraints, from a scarcity of hotel rooms and cars to the lack of BlackBerry connectivity. In late April, the forecast high was 21 degrees Fahrenheit, subject to sudden changes; we had plans and backup plans for all of the ways a sudden storm or other event could disrupt the precision timing the Secretary’s travel demands.
After five months of preparation, it was a thrill to see the Secretary’s blue and white plane land and watch him set foot on Arctic soil. During the meeting, the eight Arctic states’ ministers adopted the Iqaluit Declaration, which presented the achievements of the council during Canada’s chairmanship (2013-2015).
Canada’s theme, “Development for the People of the North,” made a priority of more effective incorporation of traditional knowledge, which has helped indigenous peoples survive for millennia, into the council’s ongoing work.
The council engaged indigenous communities and health professionals to identify successful approaches to improve mental wellness and resiliency across the region. In addition, Canada took the initiative to have a stronger business presence in the North and advanced important environmental priorities.
It was an exhilarating and bone-chilling experience.
The ministerial also set the tone for the next two years of U.S. leadership of the council. Under the theme, “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges and Responsibilities,” the United States is focusing on three initiatives.
Enhancing Arctic Ocean Safety, Security and Stewardship: Improve the ability of Arctic states to execute their search and rescue responsibilities, and emphasize safe, secure and environmentally sound shipping. Other priorities include marine environmental protection and ocean acidification.
Improving Economic and Living Conditions: Continue Canada’s work on mental health to address the unacceptable rates of suicide in northern communities. Find ways to improve renewable energy options in the Arctic, along with improvements in water, sanitation and telecommunications capabilities.
Addressing the Impacts of Climate Change: Tackle short-lived climate pollutants, build community and ecosystem resilience, and improve Arctic science, with recognition of the importance of traditional knowledge. The Obama administration has identified climate change as a national security threat.
The ministerial illustrated the reach of diplomacy beyond world capitals to distant lands whose future matters to all of us. The Arctic Ocean is rapidly changing from a solid expanse of inaccessible sea ice into a navigable sea. Recent years have seen an increase in shipping through the Bering Strait, and the rise in sea levels is already having an impact on coastal cities.
Thawing of large expanses of permafrost poses a threat to the region’s infrastructure, and has the potential to release large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, which would amplify the effects of global warming.
Our exhilarating Iqaluit visit included unique moments few delegations experience: driving on frozen Frobisher Bay, observing Inuit lifestyles in a replica igloo, learning about polar bears and narwhals, and browsing through colorful locally produced handicrafts.
The opportunity to serve as the Secretary’s control officer, the exposure to the Arctic’s complex plethora of issues and challenges, and the chance to sample its vibrant culture in situ, made for a rich and rewarding professional experience, surely the most memorable of my Foreign Service career thus far.