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US Calls Arctic Council Meeting 'Historic'

Ice covering the ocean surface at lower Baffin Island, area around Hudson Strait and the Labrador Sea (2008 file photo)

Ice covering the ocean surface at lower Baffin Island, area around Hudson Strait and the Labrador Sea (2008 file photo)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to join fellow foreign ministers from the eight-nation Arctic Council on Thursday in Greenland's capital, Nuuk, for a meeting on polar region issues, including the receding Arctic ice cap. The meeting follows the release of a council report that Arctic warming and the resulting rise in sea levels might be much greater than previous forecasts.

It will be the seventh ministerial-level meeting of the Arctic Council, made up of the countries surrounding the Arctic Ocean.

But Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg says the Greenland session will be historic, in that the grouping will create a permanent secretariat, and sign its first legally-binding common agreement, on Arctic search and rescue operations.

At a preview seminar at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, Steinberg said the Greenland meeting will strengthen the Arctic Council's role as the preeminent world body for Arctic affairs and underline cooperation on regional environmental and maritime issues.

"In the broadest terms, we want to send a strong message that in the post-Cold War world, the Arctic is a region of cooperation, not conflict," said Steinberg. "And by working together to ensure the safety of human life in a newly-emerging region of human activity, we can show in particular that Russia and the United States are key actors in helping to propel cooperation on important issues."

In addition to the United States and Russia, the Arctic Council includes Canada, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, which is in the grouping because of its administration of Greenland.

Indigenous communities from around the Arctic region are also represented. Countries not bordering the Arctic Ocean, but with interests in the region, have criticized the notion of a permanent structure for the Arctic Council.

The State Department's James Steinberg said another key objective of this week's meeting will be to agree on criteria for observer status for other interested countries and organizations.

The deputy secretary said data suggest that the Arctic region is warming two to three times faster than the rest of the world, and that council members will discuss new steps to curb emissions of black carbon, methane and other gases linked to climate change.

A study conducted under Arctic Council auspices and released last week in Copenhagen said Arctic warming and resultant melting of polar ice could raise sea levels by as much as 1.6 meters by 2100, almost three times more than forecast in a landmark United Nations study five years ago.

Charles Ebinger, an Arctic expert at Washington's Brookings Institution, says the world has not yet come to grips with the enormity of problems that would be posed by such change.

"When you starting talking about sea levels rising nine-and-a-half feet, I think the number was, by 2100, that's a staggering rise in the sea levels and would have potential catastrophic implications for certainly New York, Boston and Washington perhaps. And I just don't think it's in peoples' mindset," noted Ebinger.

Ebinger said he hopes the Arctic Council agrees on a transparent observer mechanism that opens its deliberations to other countries with interests in the region, including China and South Korea.

Steinberg said Arctic and climate issues figured in Secretary of State Clinton's meetings with senior Chinese officials on Monday at the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

Clinton, who will be the first U.S. secretary of state to attend an Arctic Council meeting, will lead a team including Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is also expected to attend.