This week, President Obama will host the leaders of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden at the White House. Together with the US, these nations make up six of the world’s eight Arctic countries. They are also members of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body through which Arctic nations collaborate on environmental protection and sustainable development. As the current chair of the Arctic Council, the US is ideally placed to lead international efforts to address the biggest challenges facing the region, and the US-Nordic gathering is an ideal opportunity to build on President Obama’s recent summit with Canada’s new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and bring added weight and urgency to several pressing Arctic issues.

The Nordic leaders and President Obama must take coordinated action to face the number one factor altering life in the Arctic: climate change. Six months ago, Nordic and US leaders made big commitments during the United Nations climate negotiations in Paris. The resulting Paris agreement – to which 196 nations signed on – is a strong foundation for long-term efforts to fight climate change. Yet even under the signatory countries’ current plans, global emissions will increase for at least the next 14 years - until 2030. For the Arctic, which is warming at twice the rate of the planet, greater and quicker efforts are required to secure a path that would limit warming in the region to less than 2°C, while limiting overall planetary warming to the 1.5°C goal set under the Paris Agreement. 

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Fortunately, Arctic nations have begun taking steps together to prepare to manage the new, emerging Arctic Ocean, including negotiating a fishing moratorium for the Arctic high seas and exploring enhanced marine cooperation through the Arctic Council. In March, President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau made important commitments to act together to protect biodiversity, to develop 2050 low-carbon strategies for the US and Canadian economies, increase collaboration with indigenous peoples, and promote a sustainable Arctic economy. Now, with our Nordic neighbors at the table, the President has an opportunity to pursue these commitments with our circumpolar partners.

To catalyze more rapid progress, the US and the Nordic countries have many tools at hand. They can push government pension funds to divest from fossil fuels. They can lead on measures in the Arctic to reduce ‘black carbon’ – sooty particles from dirty fuels and other sources that collect on ice and snow and speed melting. Specifically, this powerful group of leaders could support phasing out the use of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, which not only produces black carbon but also poses a risk to Arctic wildlife and coastal communities if spilled.

And of course one of the most important steps these six nations can take is phasing out offshore oil and gas development in the circumpolar region.  Doing so would help to forge a sustainable future for the Arctic by keeping harmful industrial activities out of the Arctic Ocean and other places that are the engines of productivity. With climate change rapidly shrinking the sea ice that provides habitat for Arctic wildlife and acts as a planetary air conditioner, the US can decide not to lease in Arctic waters, and Norway can act to halt oil and gas exploitation into the ice edge.

Harnessing public-private partnerships to expand urban renewable energy grids and increase energy access in remote areas is also something the Nordics and the US can do together.  Investing in renewables can help protect wildlife habitat while creating local jobs, increasing home savings, and contributing to solving the climate crisis. In many cases, successful and innovative renewable energy programs are underway already, waiting to be scaled up and replicated. Taken as a package and endorsed by the majority of Arctic nations, these measures can go a long way toward building the "sustainable Arctic economy" endorsed by President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau in their joint statement this past March.  

Unless Arctic people and their leaders step up now to define a sustainable “blue economy” for this relatively unspoiled region – an economy that aims to support resilient people and ecosystems while accounting for the rapid and severe impacts of climate change – the Arctic is likely to join the list of Earth’s oceans where nature’s productivity and abundance are in sharp decline.


Margaret Williams is the Managing Director, Arctic Program at World Wildlife Fund