Evan Katz

*This post is a modified version of my PUBPOL 820 research paper, Save the Polar Bears: Proposals to Reform Arctic Governance, from November 2019.

The Circumpolar North evokes images of a distant land with frigid temperatures, vast snow and sea ice coverage, and indigenous communities subsisting on marine life. Yet the importance of the Arctic cannot be understated. It plays a vital role in the overall health of the global environment and houses vast reserves of untapped resources. Unfortunately, as the effects of climate change continue to manifest, the Arctic is warming at an alarming rate. Human activity, from increased shipping and trade to natural resource exploitation, is further amplifying those effects, putting the Arctic at risk of environmental degradation. And geopolitical competition between the United States, China, and Russia has moved the region from the periphery of international politics to a critical stage.

To deal with these emerging and dire challenges, Arctic governance needs a major overhaul. The Arctic Council, a group consisting of the eight circumpolar Arctic states and 39 observer entities, is insufficient in its current form. To fix this, I recommend that the eight member states agree to a more robust version of the Arctic Council with a larger scope and greater coordination. In this paper, I will chronicle the history of Arctic governance from the early twentieth century through the 2010s. Then I will illuminate some of the major challenges the Arctic environment faces and identify challenges in Arctic governance. Finally, I will examine some reform proposals, select the most plausible and feasible, and issue a recommendation for reforming Arctic governance.


Early History of Arctic Governance

Because of its relatively recent emergence on the international stage, the Arctic boasts a unique history. Unlike other parts of the world, the ice-covered region was largely inaccessible until late in the nineteenth century, leaving it outside the consciousness of most policymakers. But for centuries, explorers attempted to locate the fabled Northwest Passage that would connect Northern Europe with Asia.1 As countries began sponsoring scientific expeditions in the Far North, it became clear that the Arctic offered new frontiers for exploration and economic activity, particularly in the way of resource exploitation and shipping traffic.2 Into the early twentieth century, the United States, Russia, Canada, and Norway all began laying sovereign claims—some overlapping—to portions of the Arctic. Though disputes were often settled peacefully, it became clear that some sort of governance regime would be needed in the region. This regime would exist not only to rectify claims, but also to provide rules and regulations for the central Arctic Ocean, which lay outside the jurisdiction of the Arctic states. To resolve competing national claims, Arctic states signed the Svalbard Treaty in 1920, which recognized Norway’s claim to the Svalbard Archipelago but permitted the other states to exploit resources and engage in scientific discovery and research. The treaty also designated the Arctic as a “zone of peace” free from military activities. Svalbard can be considered one of the earliest instances of Arctic governance.3

Though Svalbard sought to keep the Arctic demilitarized, World War II and the Cold War both fundamentally altered the perception of the region from an area for research and discovery to a yet another theater in a broader geopolitical competition. During World War II, the Allies used the Arctic as an avenue to bolster warfighting capabilities and move supplies to the frontlines.4 Throughout the Cold War, both NATO and the Eastern Bloc maintained sizable military presences in the region, both through bases and naval activities.5

The perception of the Arctic shifted yet again during détente in the mid-1970s and 1980s, as the Soviet Union and United States began cooperating over research and scientific discovery in earnest. The focus of such cooperation was quite narrow, and momentum on environmental protection remained elusive. But the inflection point arrived in 1987 when Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev addressed the city of Murmansk in northwest Russia. He decried the prospect of military activity in the Arctic, calling for a nuclear-free zone and an end to naval exercises in the region. He also sought the creation of a more robust conservation regime.6 Concurrently, Finland expressed fears of transboundary pollution and contamination of its environment in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl Incident. It used the nuclear accident to push for the creation of an “international environmental monitoring regime”7 north of the Arctic Circle in 1989. This “Finnish Initiative” eventually evolved into the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) in 1991, to which all eight Arctic states agreed.8

The Arctic Council

In the late 1980s, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney advocated for the creation of a council of Arctic countries to increase cooperation not only over the environment, but also over economic and social issues in the region. This sentiment was furthered by Joe Clark, Canada’s Minister of External Affairs in 1990, and had the support of many Canadian scholars.9 By 1991, Canada published a Framework Report that contained the blueprints of what would ultimately become the Arctic Council. Unlike today’s Arctic Council, the council that Canada proposed would have had a broad agenda—instead of a narrower focus solely on the environment—with direct representation of NGOs and indigenous groups. The five Nordic countries, particularly Finland, feared that the Canadian proposal might undermine emphasis on the AEPS and conditioned their support on the participation of the United States and Russia.10

The United States, on the other hand, did not want to cede decision-making authority over its Arctic policy to yet another international bureaucracy, nor did it want to shift its existing security approach to the region. It preferred a much less ambitious proposal subsumed under the AEPS. Under the American proposal, the Arctic Council would simply offer a forum for Arctic states11 to discuss environmental protection and sustainable development.12 American and Canadian diplomats discussed American inclusion for the better part of two years starting in 1995 to no avail. Eventually, the United States issued its own watered-down proposal for the Arctic Council. It presented Canada with an ultimatum—accept the United States’ terms or move forward without them—that the country ultimately accepted. Thus, the Arctic Council entered into existence in September 1996 with the drafting of the Ottawa Declaration.13 Because Ottawa is a declaration and not a treaty, the Arctic Council is a non-binding organization with no real legal authority. This limits the extent to which the organization can effect sweeping change in the region; such change is largely limited to within the jurisdiction of these states.

The Arctic Council has a secretariat located in Tromsø, Norway, established in 2012.14 The eight Arctic states—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States—are all members. The chairmanship rotates every two years between the member states, and the current chair is Iceland. There are six working groups and four programs and action plans through which the organization takes action. Full membership on the Arctic Council is restricted to the eight Arctic states, since those states are the only ones with recognized sovereign claims north of the Arctic Circle. But because there are other stakeholders beyond the eight states, the Arctic Council recognizes 39 observer entities, including 13 non-Arctic states15, 14 intergovernmental and interparliamentary organizations, and 12 NGOs16. In addition, because of the large number of indigenous groups in the region, there are six indigenous community organizations recognized as Permanent Participants.17

Current Arctic Challenges

Climate Change

The pace of climate change is accelerating across the globe, but nowhere is this more evident than in the Arctic. Sea ice is melting at such an alarming rate that portions of the Arctic are now ice-free during the summer months. Indeed, the summer of 2019 saw Arctic ice coverage reach its second lowest in four decades.18 This has numerous implications for the global environment. First, the Arctic can be considered a “keystone ecosystem for the entire planet” because of feedback mechanisms that help regulate global temperatures.19 Its extensive ice coverage increases the Earth’s albedo, which helps to reflect solar radiation back into space. Absent year-round ice coverage, the oceans will absorb greater amounts of sunlight, which will rapidly increase water temperatures, contribute to sea level rise, and drastically alter the Earth’s biogeochemical cycles.20 The Arctic also possesses a sizable amount of biodiversity; its species not only play a major role in the global food chain but also are of critical importance to the indigenous communities who subsist on them.21 Additionally, the Arctic tundra houses large concentrations of methane under permafrost that could be released in the event of warmer temperatures. Because the greenhouse gas effects of methane dwarf those of carbon dioxide, methane release would trigger runaway warming. A 2004 report from the Methane Hydrate Advisory Committee warns that methane release from the Arctic has a “global warming potential of 62 times that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.”22 On the micro level, climate change is disrupting the lives of indigenous communities in the Far North. Problems such as coastal erosion, pollution, loss of marine life needed for subsistence, and infrastructure degradation have significantly hampered their day-to-day lives.23

As climate change shrinks sea ice coverage in the Far North, increasing accessibility opens up opportunities for increased economic activities. Ice-free waters are a huge boon for trade because of the potential for more efficient shipping routes. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo referred to the new Arctic sea lanes as “21st century Suez and Panama Canals.”24 China—an Arctic Council observer state—has recognized this and has a keen interest in utilizing the Arctic as a means to expand its trade network as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.25 However, as ships pass through the Arctic, they introduce pollutants like black carbon that negatively impact the environment.26 The Arctic also possesses vast amounts of natural resources, ranging from hydrocarbons to rare earth elements, that have the potential to generate exorbitant amounts of revenue. Norway and Russia have invested billions of dollars in infrastructure to develop those resources.27 While the costs associated with extraction have historically made exploitation of those resources prohibitive, melting sea ice has helped clear some of the obstacles to resource development.28


As mentioned earlier, the mid-twentieth century saw the Arctic morph into a theater for geopolitical competition throughout the Cold War. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, competition gave way to cooperation over environmental protection and sustainable development, leading to the creation of the Arctic Council. But recently, geopolitical competition has reemerged. Russia has sought to return as a global power and wants to assert its military might and national claims in the region. The United States wants to retain its hegemony and has historically resisted other states interfering in its Arctic policy. China, an Arctic Council observer state, wants to take advantage of the economic opportunities an ice-free Arctic can offer to bolster its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.29 Canada has begun to move rangers into its northern territories.30 The reintroduction of “high politics” to an Arctic region that for the last three decades has largely been insulated from it complicates efforts to further a more robust environmental protection regime.

Governance Challenges

The Arctic Context

One of the peculiarities of the Arctic vis-à-vis other regions of the world is that it lacks a “formal, treaty-based, regional organization”31 similar to the European Union or Organization of American States. Instead, the Arctic Council is a “soft-law” institution that exists for the purposes of furthering the goals of environmental protection and sustainable development. It therefore lacks the legal authority to compel its member states to comply with any rules or regulations. There are numerous smaller agreements and regimes in place between both Arctic and non-Arctic states, such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but no formal institution governs activity in the Arctic.

Another unique element in the Arctic are the indigenous communities who inhabit the Circumpolar North. Since these groups are disproportionately affected by changes in the Arctic climate, they are some of the primary stakeholders in Arctic policy. Yet because treaty organizations can only exist between sovereign states, a traditional governance regime would fail to include the interests of indigenous communities. One of the benefits of a soft-law institution like the Arctic Council is that it is not bound by the rigidities of international law and can more effectively incorporate contributions from these groups.32

Problems with the Arctic Council

Though it has had success in the past, the Arctic Council suffers from weak institutional capacity. This manifests itself in a few forms. First, the Arctic Council’s lack of legal authority significantly hampers efforts to protect the environment and promote sustainable development in the Arctic.33 States can pay lip service to environmental protection but can ultimately refuse to take action if they so choose. Second, the Arctic Council does not have a means to fund joint projects. Member states usually only choose to fund projects that further their interests in the region.34 Third, there is poor coordination between member states and working groups in the Arctic Council, which limits the efficiency of action. Working groups suffer from redundancies and lack of a clear direction.35 Fourth, because the Arctic Council is not a formal, treaty-based organization, member states do not assign it the same level of importance as other institutions. Instead of having full-time delegates to the Arctic Council, states will send delegates from their foreign ministries who have other responsibilities to tend to. This creates a lack of focus among member states and weakens institutional expertise.

Another major complication with the Arctic Council stems from geography. First, the seats of government of each Arctic state lie significantly south of the Arctic Circle.36 Policymakers do not have to deal with Arctic issues on a regular basis and therefore do not understand some of the pressing challenges the region faces.37 They are also less likely to prioritize Arctic issues over other national issues and will place less emphasis on the projects the Arctic Council undertakes. Because of this, northern groups, who already rely heavily on the Arctic states to represent them and act on their behalf, have limited say in the direction of Arctic policy and suffer as a result of inaction. Second, climatic changes in the Arctic both are influenced by activity outside the Arctic Circle and affect states outside the Arctic Circle. An effective environmental protection regime requires non-Arctic states to participate.38

Finally, competing interests and the rise of geopolitical competition leave the Arctic Council without a common, unified voice on matters of environmental protection. The Nordic states and Canada prefer a more robust regime while the United States wants to control its own Arctic policy and seems disinterested in protecting the environment. Indeed, this year the United States refused to a two-year agenda because it disagrees that climate change poses a serious threat to the Arctic.39 This marks a major shift from the more environmentally focused Obama administration, during which the United States served as the chair of the Arctic Council.40 Without full buy-in from each member, there is little the Arctic Council can do in the way of taking action.41

Steps Forward

Framework for Evaluation

Any Arctic governance regime must contend with the “six central questions”—who, what, where, when, how, and why—outlined by Douglas Nord in The Changing Arctic.42 Who should be responsible for governance? In the Arctic Council, the eight Arctic states are the primary decision-makers, but a number of non-Arctic states and NGOs contribute to policy discussion. What should be governed? The Arctic Council’s members are exclusively in the Circumpolar North, but because of the far-reaching effects of Arctic climate change, virtually every other state is affected by what goes on in the region. Where should governance take place? Land, sea, and air are all interconnected. When should governance operate: only at certain times with a limited regime, or at all times with a comprehensive regime? How should it be established: through an existing framework like UNCLOS or through something entirely new? And why should the Arctic be governed?

Additionally, when examining reform proposals, one must consider different, and at times dichotomous, goals. Efforts to thwart climate change could prevent states from harnessing the economic potential of Arctic resources and shipping lanes.43 An especially robust regime could trample on the sovereignty on the Arctic states. A state-centric focus obscures the needs of non-state actors who also have an important role in the Arctic.44

Formal Treaties

One solution to the governance conundrum in the Arctic is to create a formal, treaty-based, regional organization.45 The major benefit associated with doing such a thing would be the ability to wield international law as a tool to achieve progress on environmental protection. An “Arctic Union” could promulgate rules regarding shipping, resource extraction, and emissions reductions. Any states that shirk their responsibility would be punished according to the treaty. When examining the deficiencies of the Arctic Council, a formal institution seems attractive. This Arctic Union would likely have much greater institutional capacity, with full time delegates who have regional expertise, a large common budget for environmental protection efforts, and significantly more coordination and specialization among its various organs.

However, there are too many potential issues with a treaty-based organization for it to be successful. First, there would be a major lack of political will. Given the competing interests of states in the region, consensus would be too difficult to generate at this juncture.46 This is especially true in 2019 compared to 2013; the Trump administration actively refuses to believe climate change is an existential threat. Second, the unique context of the Arctic complicates the effectiveness of a treaty-based organization. Because of the importance of non-state actors in the region, soft-law governance is uniquely more appropriate for the Arctic. Even though the Arctic Council is—for all intents and purposes—voluntary, its informal nature allows it to incorporate the perspectives and interests of these actors while bypassing the limitations of international law.47

Instead of a full organization, some scholars have proposed creating an “Arctic Treaty System” akin to the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) in the Southern Ocean. The ATS governs international relations between states over scientific cooperation and environmental protection in the Antarctic. It also bans military activity and invalidates any sovereign claims to the continent. However, the Arctic context is not conducive to an ATS analogue. Too many states exercise legitimately recognized sovereign claims to territories north of the Arctic Circle, and, unlike Antarctica, the Arctic has a native human population.48

Reforming the Arctic Council

An entirely different set of alternatives revolves around maintaining the existing framework created by the Ottawa Declaration and simply adjusting the Arctic Council to more effectively deal with the environmental challenges faced in the region. One proposal advocates reforming membership into separate categories, much like the ATS, allowing observer states like China to have an expanded role in the organization.49 Another proposal calls for establishing an “Arctic Ocean Coordinating Agreement” under the purview of the Arctic Council to coordinate governance across the existing fragmented regimes and bolster scientific cooperation.50 A third pushes for greater delineation of boundaries between working groups to increase efficiency and specialization. Proposals to slightly alter the Arctic Council structure do not tackle the core issues with the organization, namely that it lacks institutional capacity or formal authority, but they do help to refocus the organization and may be the only possible way forward due to lack of a unified voice or political will.


Though it arrived late to the scene in global politics, the Arctic has become one of the world’s most critical regions and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Climate change threatens the overall health of the Arctic region and has dire implications for the rest of the world. It has become clear that the current governance regime is not doing enough to safeguard the Arctic. Significant reforms are necessary to ensure the survivability not only of the region, but also the planet.

Fixing Arctic governance is an extremely difficult task that lacks a clear answer. Unfortunately, no single alternative has proven to be dominant over the others. The ideal version of Arctic governance would see the creation of an overarching formal regime to undertake ambitious environmental protection efforts. But the reality is that the lack of political will would stymie such an endeavor. The most effective way forward would be to engage in piecemeal reform the Arctic Council by expanding its scope, delineating clear boundaries between its working groups, and adjusting membership requirements so non-Arctic states can have an expanded role in the region.


  1. Mat Whitelaw, “The Mystery of the Northwest Passage,” Arctic Kingdom, https://arctickingdom.com/the-mystery-of-the-northwest-passage-past-and-present-explorers/, (October 30, 2018).
  2. Douglas C. Nord, The Changing Arctic: Creating a Framework for Consensus Building and Governance within the Arctic Council (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 23.
  3. Ibid., 24.
  4. Ibid., 25.
  5. Ibid., 26.
  6. Ibid., 28-29.
  7. Ibid., 28.
  8. Ibid., 28.
  9. Ibid., 31-33.
  10. Ibid., 34-35.
  11. While the United States did not object to the inclusion of indigenous groups and other NGOs in discussions, it strongly opposed giving those groups equal status on the Arctic Council.
  12. Nord, The Changing Arctic, 35-37.
  13. Ibid., 39-41.
  14. Waliul Hasanat, “Reforming the Arctic Council Against Increasing Climate Change Challenges in the North,” Michigan State International Law Review 22, no. 1 (2013): 198.
  15. China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
  16. “Observers,” Arctic Council, https://arctic-council.org/index.php/en/about-us/arctic-council/observers, (July 31, 2019).
  17. “Permanent Participants,” Arctic Council, https://arctic-council.org/index.php/en/about-us/member-states/35-about-us/permanent-participants, (March 22, 2017).
  18. Sara Blumberg, “2019 Arctic Sea Ice Minimum Tied for Second Lowest On Record,” NASA, https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2019-arctic-sea-ice-extent-fourth-lowest-on-record/, (September 23, 2019).
  19. World Wildlife Fund, “Drilling for Oil in the Arctic: Too Soon, Too Risky,” WWF, http://assets.worldwildlife.org/publications/393/files/original/Drilling_for_Oil_in_the_Arctic_Too_Soon_Too_Risky.pdf., (December 1, 2010), 5.
  20. Ibid., 5-6.
  21. Ibid., 5.
  22. Cory Morningstar, “Destination – Hell. Are We There Yet? Drilling and Earthquakes,” Huntington News, http://www.huntingtonnews.net/2768, (March 27, 2011).
  23. Oran R. Young, “Is It Time for a Reset in Arctic Governance?” Sustainability 11, no. 16 (August 20, 2019): 5.
  24. Neil Shea, “A New Cold War Brews as Arctic Ice Melts,” National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/10/new-cold-war-brews-as-arctic-ice-melts/, (May 9, 2019).
  25. Ibid., 2, 5.
  26. Sabaa A. Khan, “The Global Commons through a Regional Lens: The Arctic Council on Short-Lived Climate Pollutants,” Transnational Environmental Law 6, no. 1 (2016): 133.
  27. Neil Shea, “A Thawing Arctic Is Heating up a New Cold War,” National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/2019/08/how-climate-change-is-setting-the-stage-for-the-new-arctic-cold-war-feature/, (August 22, 2019).
  28. Young, “Is It Time?” 5.
  29. Ibid., 5.
  30. Shea, “A Thawing Arctic.”
  31. Khan, “The Global Commons,” 147.
  32. Khan, “The Global Commons,” 148.
  33. Hasanat, “Reforming the Arctic Council,” 207.
  34. Ibid., 221.
  35. Ibid., 222.
  36. Except Iceland, whose capital, Reykjavik, is the northernmost capital city in the world and lies just over two degrees south of the Arctic Circle.
  37. Hasanat, “Reforming the Arctic Council,” 222-223.
  38. Young, “Is It Time?” 6.
  39. Janice Dickson, “Chrystia Freeland Says It’s a ‘Disappointment’ Arctic Council Could Not Issue Joint Communique.” The Globe and Mail, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-chrystia-freeland-says-its-a-disappointment-arctic-council-could/, (May 8, 2019).
  40. Andrei Sakharov, “Shift in the United States Climate Policy and the Arctic Council Agenda,” International Organisations Research Journal 13, no. 1 (2018): 69
  41. Hasanat, “Reforming the Arctic Council,” 224.
  42. Nord, The Changing Arctic, 10-13.
  43. Hasanat, “Reforming the Arctic Council,” 231-232.
  44. Ibid., 232-234.
  45. Ibid., 226-227.
  46. Young, “Is It Time?”, 7.
  47. Khan, “The Global Commons,” 146-148.
  48. Hasanat, “Reforming the Arctic Council,” 226-227.
  49. Young, “Is It Time?”, 7-10.
  50. Khan, “The Global Commons,” 146.