NUUK, Greenland (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Greenland on Wednesday for an Arctic summit to improve management of a vast, pristine region being rapidly transformed by climate change.
Clinton flew to Nuuk on a Air Force transport and was greeted at the tiny capital’s airport by Greenland Premier Kuupik Kleist and dozens of cheering Greenlanders who braved a chilly spring night still bathed in sunlight.
Clinton and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will lead the U.S. team to Thursday’s meeting of the Arctic Council, which includes Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark, which handles foreign affairs for Greenland, as well as groups representing indigenous inhabitants of the world’s most northerly regions.
Clinton will be the first U.S. secretary of state to attend an Arctic Council meeting. U.S. officials say her trip shows the Arctic is moving up Washington’s priority list as rising temperatures create new environmental risks and new economic opportunities in a region rich with untapped resources.
The melt is undermining the hunting livelihoods of indigenous peoples and threatening polar bears and other creatures. But the changes may also make the Arctic more accessible to shipping, mining and oil and gas exploration.
The region is estimated to hold about a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves.
The Arctic Council is an international organization formed to promote cooperation among the nations making up the Arctic region, which covers more than a sixth of Earth’s landmass.
The council is expected to announce its first formal agreement -- a deal on dividing search-and-rescue responsibility among Arctic states -- and to debate guidelines for admitting observer delegations from non-Arctic powers such as China.
It may also consider moves to coordinate oil and gas development in the region, as well as establishing a permanent council secretariat to help strengthen the organization’s governance role.
“This is an important innovation in the architecture of regional and global cooperation,” Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said this week in a speech previewing Clinton’s Arctic trip.
The Arctic Council is getting more attention as a thaw transforms the region.
Last week, a new international study projected that world sea levels would rise by 3 to 5 feet by 2100 -- more than previously projected -- partly because of an accelerating melt of Greenland and other Arctic ice.
That brought calls by Nordic nations for more action to slow climate change and more focus on the Arctic in sluggish U.N. negotiations on a global deal.
While the United States -- through the state of Alaska -- is a major Arctic player, it has been hampered by the U.S. Senate’s failure to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
That agreement governs navigation rights, addresses environmental issues and allows member nations to apply to extract oil, gas and mineral deposits beyond a 200-mile (322- km) exclusion zone.
Political analysts say that while other countries such as Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway have hastened to stake claims in the region, the United States has not been able to join in.
“We need to be at this table. We are at a military and economic disadvantage,” said Heather Conley, an Arctic expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
The Obama administration has said it will continue to work with the Senate to get the treaty ratified. But the window appears narrow as the United States gears up for the 2012 election campaign, a political season that often puts international agreements on the back burner.
Additional reporting by Alister Doyle in Oslo; Editing by Peter Cooney