U.S. Official: Increased Attention to Arctic Promotes Americans’ Understanding of Region

Nov 6, 2015

Is the Arctic Council raising Arctic awareness?

“There’s a tremendous amount of energy that’s being directed at the Arctic right now,” says Craig Fleener advises Alaska Gov. Bill Walker on Arctic issues, “and I think it’s a variety of issues that have sort of come together at this perfect time.”

Fleener, like many other state and federal officials, believe that Americans finally are becoming aware of the circumpolar north and the challenges it faces. Those include dealing with the impact of climate change, an issue that senior State Department official David Balton talked about last week after a meeting in Anchorage.

David Balton, U.S. deputy assistant Secretary of State, Arctic Council SAO chair
Credit Alaska World Affairs Council

“I think awareness among rank and file Americans about the Arctic and about Alaska is growing,” he said in a news conference at the end of the Arctic Council’s Senior Arctic Officials meeting.

Balton is a deputy assistant Secretary of State who chairs the Senior Arctic Officials, or SAOs, group of top foreign-ministry officials representing each of the council’s eight member nations. He said the council has been helping Americans understand more about the Arctic, especially since the United States assumed council chairmanship earlier this year.

“The fact that we have taken over as chair of the Arctic Council has caught attention – perhaps not of just everyday on the street, but a lot of universities, think tanks, environmental groups, scientific organizations through the Lower 48.”

Balton says council meetings in Alaska have helped attract more attention to the region, along with other events in which it’s participated, like an August conference in August that featured a speech by President Obama.

Balton says the GLACIER conference of foreign ministers in August and President Obama's speech during the event in Anchorage both helped draw attention to the Arctic and the challenges that confront the region.
Credit KUAC file photo

“Probably the single biggest ‘bump’ in awareness occurred when the president came here,” he said. “He brought with him a lot of attention.”

Nils Andreassen is executive director of the Institute of the North, an Alaskan think tank. And he’s not sure if the council’s activities are making much of an impression among a certain important group of Americans.

“Most of the Arctic issues that the Arctic Council is dealing with are terribly complex,” he said, “and I would say most policymakers, folks in D.C., aren’t really interested in (them).”

But Andreassen says there’s a lot of understanding of the Arctic among those who work in industries that do business in Alaska, especially in the energy sector and in maritime services.