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New London - The United States and Canada should work together to have increased influence on how the melting Arctic region is developed, experts say.
Several participants at a conference Friday on leadership for the Arctic said the two countries should capitalize on the fact that Canada is next in line to lead the Arctic Council, followed by the United States.
David Balton, deputy assistant secretary for Oceans and Fisheries, and Lloyd Axworthy, who helped create the Arctic Council in 1996 as Canada's minister of foreign affairs, said the two North American members of the group should develop a four-year strategic agenda. The chairmanship of the high-level intergovernmental forum rotates every two years. The other members of the council are: Denmark, Russia, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Finland.
The council's purpose is to promote cooperation among the Arctic nations on issues that transcend their borders, such as sustainable development and environmental protection. In recent years, the council has focused on assessing the effects of Arctic climate change, marine shipping and the options for sustainable development.
"I think we could … spend four years building the council into an effective forum for the decision-making that is going to be needed," Axworthy said.
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. sees the partnership going further.
Given budget constraints and the need for ships that can operate in the Arctic, Papp said, the United States and Canada could perhaps share a design for icebreakers or even pool resources to build them. Their cutters already work together in the Arctic.
"I'm willing to explore that," Papp said.
There needs to be a "stronger, more comprehensive national focus on the efforts in the Arctic," Papp said.
The Coast Guard Academy and the Law of the Sea Institute at the University of California's Berkeley School of Law partnered to sponsor the two-day conference that brought more than 160 academics, professionals and law specialists together at the academy to share ideas with the policymakers making decisions about the Arctic.
Coast Guard Capt. Glenn Sulmasy, chairman of the academy's Humanities Department, said it was the right time to figure out "how best to lead in the Arctic." Many in attendance stated their support for ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The United States is the only Arctic nation not to ratify the treaty, which deals with jurisdiction in the Arctic. Balton said there's a chance the Senate soon will conduct hearings on the treaty, which enjoys broad support in government, industry and environmental organizations.
"In a rational world, there would be the ability to get it approved," he said. "I'm a rational person and I believe it will happen."
Berkeley Law Professor David Caron, an expert in international law, said the fact that it's an election year is a "tremendous obstacle" since senators who privately support it may not want to do so publicly.
Papp concluded the conference by telling the attendees that when it comes to tackling the challenges posed by the changes in the Arctic, "there's not a moment to lose."
"We need to start moving forward," he said.