GAO has issued a report on better direction and management of voluntary recommendations and how this could enhance U.S. Arctic Council participation.

The Arctic Council (Council) is a voluntary intergovernmental forum for Arctic States, with involvement of indigenous organizations and other stakeholders, to address various environmental and economic issues through projects and reports targeting a variety of subjects. The eight Arctic States guide the work of the Council through consensus decisions and rotate the chairmanship of the Council every 2 years. The United States will assume the chairmanship in 2015. The participants meet in six working groups, four task forces, and various expert groups to produce such documents as scientific assessments and guidance. For example, the Council has produced assessments of Arctic climate change impacts and shipping. As Arctic issues have emerged, the Council has expanded and broadened its work to address them. For example, since the Council's was established in 1996, the number of ongoing projects has increased from about 30 to 80.

Six key federal agencies hold leadership roles in the Arctic Council and other agencies participate through the Council's working groups and task forces. The U.S. Department of State (State) leads this participation and collaborates with the five other key agencies that lead the delegations to Council working groups-the Environmental Protection Agency, National Nuclear Security Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Global Change Research Program-as well as other federal agencies with Arctic interests. In collaborating on Council work, the agencies face challenges by not having a clear direction or specific resources for their work.

Federal agencies have acted on some voluntary recommendations that the United States and other Arctic States have adopted through the Council. However, State does not review or track progress made on these actions and faces challenges implementing the voluntary recommendations. Specifically, State informally discusses the recommendations with other agencies during monthly meetings but does not have a process to review and track progress the agencies have made toward implementing them.

State officials said that the agency may need to more formally assess such progress because, without such a process, State does not know the status of recommendation implementation and faces challenges planning for and prioritizing future actions to address Arctic issues. In addition, the United States-with State as the lead agency-and other Arctic States face challenges implementing the Council's broad and numerous recommendations. To address these challenges, State officials said that the Council needs to more clearly specify and prioritize recommendations, but the Council does not have guidelines for doing so. Without such guidelines, officials said the recommendations have not historically produced actions with measurable outcomes.

Key Arctic Issues

Numerous scientific studies, assessments, and government reports have documented the widespread changes occurring in the Arctic and their local and global implications. Climate change affects many of these issues because warming in the Arctic has exceeded the warming in the rest of the world. Scientists have documented the wide-ranging effects of such warming on various aspects of the Arctic environment. For example, the coverage of Arctic sea ice has steadily declined since 1979, when satellite measurements became available.

In addition to declining sea ice coverage, rising Arctic temperatures cause thawing of the permafrost—permanently frozen ground, according to the 2009 USGCRP report. A 2012 Council report states that such thawing can decrease the stability of infrastructure such as buildings, roads, pipelines, and airports, and it affects natural ecosystems through ground surface collapse and draining of lakes, among other things. Also, particularly when combined with increased wave action from reduced sea ice coverage, the less stable ground becomes susceptible to coastal erosion, affecting coastal villages and community members.

Climate change also affects the Arctic Ocean’s chemistry, increasing its acidity as the ocean absorbs the increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according to the 2013 interagency Arctic management report.

The environmental changes in the Arctic have affected the region’s people and ecosystems, but they have also brought about economic development opportunities. Specifically, according to a 2014 Congressional Research Service report, a decrease in sea ice coverage leads to a more accessible Arctic, presenting potential opportunities to expand economic activities in the region. For example, the interagency Arctic management report stated that diminishing Arctic sea ice will likely encourage growth of commercial shipping via international trans-Arctic sea routes, even though the timing of such expansion remains unclear.

Another economic opportunity arising from a more accessible Arctic includes potential development of the region’s mineral, oil, and gas resources. However, the economic factors and technical challenges of operating in the Arctic environment will also affect the growth of such development, according to Department of the Interior officials and the 2014 Congressional Research Service report.

Source and Image Credit: GAO

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