1990s Ferrero Rocher adverts and Danish political TV hit Borgen. Two off-piste conversation topics in a west London cafe last Friday as our group of Greenpeace campaigners and volunteers prepared for a first-time experience. We were off to three Arctic states’ embassies to tell real-life representatives of Iceland, Denmark and Canada that binding political action for Arctic protection is an international debate they can’t ignore.
Today, the only thing protecting the uninhabited area around the North Pole is sweeping statements. While it has universal recognition as the global commons and is the shared responsibility of the international community, it enjoys no form – literally 0% – of protected status. The swathe of Arctic sea ice has acted as a de facto shield freezing out exploitation, but it is melting faster and faster due to climate change caused by our dependence on fossil fuels. As the Arctic Ocean becomes open water, it has also become open for business.
Who does this suit? Arctic coastal states certainly, who are keen to lay claim on the valuable resources found beyond their national boundaries. Governments and industry see the opening of the Arctic as yet another business opportunity to plunder marine life and resources and drill for more of the oil that melted the ice in the first place.
But Arctic exploitation is not a foregone conclusion. Within and beyond Arctic states, an international community is starting to organise. As part of that, our small delegation of Greenpeace campaigners and volunteers chalked up the 43rd, 44th and 45th visits to Arctic state embassies within just a few weeks, taking place all around the world.
We were there to deliver the Arctic Declaration, a mechanism for global leaders and civil society to express concern about the Arctic crisis, and a ‘how-to’ manual for political leadership on Arctic protection. With it we enclosed the signatures of some 1,200 leaders and leading organisations that have joined the call for urgent political action to protect the Arctic. In the UK alone, over 800 new and existing supporters have been working behind the scenes to secure influential signatories to the Declaration.
The UK is one of 16 countries conducting these meetings. Many are in Arctic countries, and some, like our colleagues in Columbia, have been taking place far away from the icy north. These visits are timed to coincide with the annual seasonal low of Arctic sea ice, and the shrinking sea ice is a stark symbol of unchecked climate change. Over the last eight years, the ice has melted to record levels, and over the past 30 years, 75% of the sea ice has vanished.
First stop on our diplomatic day trek was the Icelandic Embassy and a warm welcome from the Ambassador. His Excellency was very passionate about fisheries which account for one third of Iceland’s export income. He spoke of seeing the climate change impacts on fisheries, as warmer waters bring fish stocks up from the south. We talked about how the policies in the Arctic Declaration would provide protection in the face of the rise of industrial unsustainable fishing that threatens the health of the Arctic Ocean, and those that depend upon it.
Next up was the Danish Embassy (luckily next door!). We were greeted by a top level Counsellor, and handed over the Arctic Declaration to him. We said we were there to impart a message, that the world is watching and calling for Arctic countries to stand up for Arctic protection. To which he replied, “Copenhagen knows.” So if you are part of the six million-strong Save the Arctic movement – a number that eclipses the total population of Denmark – then you’ve helped raise awareness of the campaign for Arctic protection to the Danish government!
After this opener, the Counsellor then acknowledged that Denmark could support many of the demands of the Arctic Declaration. He wanted us to know that Denmark considers itself a leader in sustainable energy; the country has pledged to be independent of fossil fuels by 2050. And yet moments later we were hearing about the race to develop Greenland’s offshore resources and oil reserves. We made sure to mention the 2013 Greenpeace report that discusses alternative pathways to development in Greenland without Arctic oil.
It was clear that there were many areas where we could agree, but equally clear that we must win the argument that development is not dependent on oil, that Arctic protection and supporting the livelihoods of Arctic Indigenous communities are not mutually exclusive. Indeed the latter may well depend on the former.
After handing in the petition and Declaration to the High Commissioner of Canada, we all headed home, empowered and proud to play a small part in the international push to move Arctic protection up the political agenda.
We left behind a framed photograph of the Arctic, taken from one of our ships bearing witness to the melting ice. It’s just a memento of our visit, but while it sits on the desks of Arctic states’ ambassadors, we hope it reminds them of their responsibility to urgently act to protect the Arctic today for future generations.
Elena Polisano is Arctic campaigner with Greenpeace UK.
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