While ministerial meetings of the Arctic Council receive most media attention, it is at the level of working groups where most of the often tedious and not-so-exciting work takes place. From the beginning of the Arctic-wide cooperation, the strongest working group has been its science body, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP).
Over the years, also other Arctic Council working groups have started to gear towards conducting large-scale scientific assessments that identify various threats to the Arctic environment. In conducting this work, the eight Arctic states’ governments need to consult indigenous peoples’ organizations – enjoying the status of permanent participants in the Council – before decisions are made. If permanent participants reject a certain proposal, it is extremely unlikely for the motion to even proceed to decision-making. There is no other regional intergovernmental forum that would give such power to indigenous peoples, the original residents of the region.
It is interesting to notice that it is these unique structures of the Arctic Council which have enabled the Council actors to influence global and regional environmental protection negotiations. Many pollutants from the mid-latitudes end up in the Arctic via prevailing wind patterns and ocean circulations systems, which means that the Arctic Council needs to influence environmental protection negotiations that take place on global level. The success of the Council has been manifest in these processes. Scientific assessments of environmental threats by AMAP and other working groups of the Council have served to catalyze global mercury and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) negotiations. Indigenous peoples have been able to concretize in these global negotiations what it means when pollutants arrive from outside to a region which does not even produce them. For instance, female Inuit have been exposed to POPs to the extent that their fetuses are in danger, which was conveyed by the Arctic Council indigenous organizations to the negotiation process which resulted in the 2001 Stockholm Convention on POPs.
In addition, by focusing on environmental protection and sustainable development, and intentionally avoiding to deal with military issues, the Council has been able to continue its work even in times when overall geopolitical cold period with Russia and most other Arctic Council member states is a reality.
The lessons from the Arctic Council to other regional levels of governance around the world are clear. In areas of geopolitical consternation, it is of utmost importance to keep dialogue open by focusing on sustainable development issues, that is, other than military security issues. It is not enough for the regional level to try to influence regional sources of pollution if many of the environmental problems are the result of many actions around the whole world. It is thus imperative for the regional level to try to effectively influence global environmental protection processes. One of the pathways for having such influence is assessment work that connects science with policy. By doing this together with the region’s original inhabitants, indigenous peoples, it is not only legitimate but also an effective way to influence these processes, as shown by the experience of the Arctic Council.