I participated in various roles in the meetings of the Arctic Council from 19 to 23 March. Many important issues were discussed and debated during the meetings of the Sustainable Development Working Group and the Senior Arctic Officials. . For instance, the eight member states (USA, Russia, Canada and the five Nordic states), indigenous peoples’ organizations (permanent participants) and observers were dealing with the fight against climate change or how to advance the region in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Many who follow international politics have been wondering how is it possible for the Arctic Council to continue to function when the geopolitical relations between Russia and the other member states of the Arctic Council are so tense. After the Crimean annexation, all the other member states of the Council have imposed sanctions on Russia, which has returned the favor with its counter-sanctions.
Many have also been amazed at how is it possible for the Council to continue to conduct scientific assessments related to climate change and advance climate policy measures, even if both USA and Russia seem unwilling to move further with their national climate policy. Presidents Putin and Trump do not seem to concern themselves with climate change, if they even believe its existence. Recently, President Trump withdrew the USA from the Paris climate change agreement. How is it then possible to continue to do climate science and policy in an inter-governmental forum in which both states are members?
I would argue that the reason for this is the low-key nature of the Arctic Council. Both USA and Russia are so busy in various disputes and wars around the world that they do not have time to notice a civil servant driven but important forum that conducts significant work. President Trump has his hands full in dealing with e.g. the Russia investigation, trade wars and the North-Korean situation. Russia is still suffering from the economic and foreign policy consequences of its illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and is heavily involved in the Syrian conflict. There is not much time to follow what a marginal looking forum called the Arctic Council does, even if the Arctic interests of both nations have become more prominent in recent years.
This situation reminds me of the fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings. It is the hobbits that are chosen to carry the ring to Mordor, as they are so small and unnoticeable. The eye of Sauron has problems in noticing the insignificant small hobbits who can then go and save the world of that story. In a similar fashion, both Trump and Putin seem to have problems in noticing this civil servant driven inter-governmental forum, which can support the fight against climate change in many ways. The Arctic Council cannot obviously save the world by itself (unlike the hobbits could in their own story world), but it can consolidate those powers that try to fight on behalf of a better world.