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Poles Apart: The Case for an Australian Role at the Arctic Council

Published 26 May 2014

By Brad Halt

The Arctic and Australia are seldom uttered in the same breath. Desolate, cold, and patently un-Australian, the Arctic doesn’t warrant so much as a passing glance in Canberra. Indeed, the international focus in Canberra has of late been confined to asylum seeker policy and diplomatic damage control with our Asia-Pacific neighbours. These squabbles have drawn much international attention, and underline the mounting need for Australia to change course, regain some its recently forfeited soft power capital, and reassert itself as a strong, middle-power democracy on the international stage. The Arctic Council is a model forum to do just that.

A region in transition

The Arctic has long been a region of only marginal importance in global politics. A significant shift in the geostrategic value of the region has been borne by increased accessibility, greater awareness of the global effects of climate change, the potential for seasonally navigable shipping routes, and the region’s significant natural resources. Several of our neighbours have established Arctic policies in recent years, and Australian policymakers would be naïve to ignore the growing global importance of the emerging Arctic any longer.[1]

Two high-level scientific studies, the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment and the 2013 Fifth Assessment Report  (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, offer authoritative assessments of the cumulative and future effects of climate change  in the Arctic. Both studies confirm the region is warming at roughly twice the average rate of the rest of the world, and over a quarter of climate models considered in the AR5 show a trend larger than observations in the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), published just six years prior. What this affirms is that the sharper angle at which the sun’s rays strike the polar region throughout the summer months, and the quicker rate at which open water once covered by ice absorbs solar radiation, has created a feedback loop that has made the Arctic the most rapidly warming region on earth. On top of this, melting Arctic permafrost will release vast quantities of methane into the atmosphere, dramatically contributing to global climate change.

The Arctic’s changing physical environment has allowed for the development of once inaccessible Arctic resources. The US Geological Survey estimates that hydrocarbon resources in the Arctic amount to as much as 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.[2] While significant barriers remain to wholesale exploitation of the Arctic, the mere existence of such resources has impelled increased international attention. There is no shortage of Arctic observers concerned about the impending security perils of climate change in the region.[3]

Locating an Australian niche 

The Coalition maintains a casual relationship with the reality of human-induced climate change. Since coming to power in September 2013, there have been a series of efforts to backtrack on former positions, which garnered the unenviable tag of ‘climate denialists’. Looking forward, the Coalition is trying to assert a more pragmatic policy acknowledging the existence of human-induced climate change.[4] Leveraging this policy-shift, Arctic-related climate change is an apt empirical foundation on which Australia could make its bid for Arctic Council observer status. Incidentally, the most recent meeting of the Arctic Council indicated that not only has the Arctic emerged as a region of immense geostrategic importance, but that it also holds significant scope for the kind of strong, multilateral cooperation upon which Australia has built much of its international reputation.

Responding to pressure from non-Arctic states vying for influence, the once inclusive Arctic Council revised its criteria for admitting accredited observers to the governance table at the 2011 Ministerial Meeting in Nuuk, Greenland. Six non-Arctic states were subsequently granted observer status at the 2013 Ministerial Meeting in Kiruna, Sweden in 2013.[5] While the rights accorded to accredited observers are limited, the extension of Arctic Council membership to emerging economic powerhouses including India, China, South Korea and Singapore has the potential to significantly shift the cooperative discourse of the Council and amplify the stakes associated with competing visions of the Arctic future.

How the clash of divergent interests at the Arctic Council will affect the organisation’s efforts in areas such as environmental protection, indigenous rights, sustainable development, and climate change adaptation is yet to be seen. Australia’s contribution to the Council could foster the maintenance of responsible and resilient norms to mitigate the risk of conflict in an uncertain Arctic future.

Soft power renewal

The Arctic Council will no doubt play a central role in a region in which the forces of cooperation, competition, and conflicting interests have yet to fully manifest. By leveraging genuine concern over the effects of Arctic climate change, Australia could take an observer seat at the Council and reassert its commitment to the values of good international governance, human rights, and responsible environmental stewardship.

Participation at the Arctic Council would afford Australia the opportunity to begin to mend its international reputation and restore its soft power capital. Indeed, this strategy requires a multi-pronged approach, but a drive for Arctic Council observer status comprises a rare example of diplomatic low-hanging fruit which Australia would be foolish to forego.

The permanent Arctic Council members represent predominantly democratic, middle-power states that would be predisposed to welcoming one of their own to the region’s primary forum. Moreover, the geographical expanse between Australia and the Arctic would reinforce Australia’s status as an unbiased and even-handed observer at the Council. The permanent members of the Arctic Council would no doubt embrace such a role for Australia.

A win-win game

Australia’s soft power capital, bolstered by a successful stint at the head of the UN Security Council and strong support for the passage of the Arms Trade Treaty, has recently been undercut by a series of high-level diplomatic bungles, an callous refugee policy, and disregard for Australia’s international environmental obligations. Australia requires a dynamic change of course to mend its marred international reputation and strengthen its diplomatic relationships to create positive, enabling environments for Australian foreign policy. Application for observer status at the Arctic Council, supported by legitimate concerns about Arctic climate change, would constitute a valuable first step in rebranding Australia as a responsible, middle-power democracy. The Arctic Council and Arctic states would similarly benefit from the participation of an Australia recommitted to the ideals of international cooperation and dialogue, human rights, democracy, and sound environmental management. The Arctic embodies a unique opportunity for Australia to regain some of its bygone international reputation, and this should not be ignored.


Brad Halt is a Master of International Relations student at the University of Melbourne. His research interests include the changing Arctic, non-proliferation and disarmament. Follow him on Twitter @hayduke_brad.



[1]   Linda Jakobson, “Northeast Asia and the Arctic” in NBR Analysis Brief, 17th December 2012, available at:

[2]   “90 billion barrels of oil, 1670 cubic feet of natural gas assessed in the Arctic” in U.S. Geological Survey Newsroom, 23rd July 2008.

[3]   For an introduction to this school of thought, see Fairhall, David (2010) Cold front: conflict ahead in Arctic waters, I.B. Tauris, London and New York.

[4]   Allard, Tom & Aston, Heath “Tony Abbott says no support for carbon emission cuts deeper than 5 per cent”  in The Sydney Morning Herald, 13th November, 2013, available at:

[5]   New Arctic Council observer states are China, India, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.