The Road to Iqaluit: The Arctic Agenda on the Eve of the U.S. Chairmanship
May 7, 2015
By: Heather A. Conley and Caroline Rohloff
On Friday, April 17, 2015, the CSIS Europe Program and Global Health Policy Center hosted a discussion in advance of the April 25th Arctic Council ministerial meeting held in Iqaluit, Canada. At that meeting, the United States assumed the chairmanship and Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts discussed a range of issues related to mitigating the impact of climate change in the Arctic and opportunities for sustainable development. The event featured a keynote address by Senator Lisa Murkowski, followed by a discussion on the future of offshore energy development in the American Arctic, and an examination of developments in Arctic health and well-being. We also released a new policy report on Arctic health and the U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship.
As the U.S. now begins its chairmanship for the next two years, the Arctic Council will continue its focus on addressing the effects of climate change, strengthening ocean stewardship and maritime safety, and improving the health and well-being for those who live in the Arctic region. Addressing this last theme, the final panel discussion was entitled, ‘The Human Dimension: Addressing Arctic Health and Well-Being,’ and featured Dr. Pamela Collins, Director of the Office for Research on Disparities and Global Mental Health at the National Institute of Mental Health/NIH; Dr. Michael G. Bruce, Epidemiology Team Leader of the Arctic Investigations Program at the Centers for Disease Control in Anchorage; Dr. Timothy Heleniak, Research Professor in the Department of Geography at George Washington University; and Ms. Heather A. Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic and Director of the Europe Program at CSIS. Dr. J. Stephen Morrison, Director of the CSIS Global Health Policy Center, offered introductory remarks and moderated the discussion.
The panel discussion centered around the recent release of the 2014 Arctic Human Development Report (AHDR), which highlights improvements, as well as remaining gaps, in the state of health and well-being in the Arctic region over the last decade. There remain huge health disparities between different Arctic states, as well as between indigenous and non-indigenous communities, particularly in relation to life expectancy and suicide rates. In addition to these issues, water distribution and sanitation systems remain a leading infrastructural challenge in rural Arctic communities.
The discussion also highlighted the issue of political barriers to improving the health and living conditions of Arctic residents. One of the greatest challenges is insufficient funding, both on the national and international levels. The United States missed a significant opportunity to propel Arctic projects and programs forward when the Office of Management and Budget did not establish a separate budget for the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship. Over the next two years, U.S. agencies will have to utilize existing funds and make difficult decisions on which projects to prioritize. To implement programs such as RISING SUN (Reducing the Incidence of Suicide in Indigenous Groups: Strengths United through Networks), it was recommended that the United States partner with other countries who can contribute both funds and expertise.
The discussion with health experts also served as the backdrop for the release of our new CSIS report, Recommendations for the U.S. Arctic Council Chairmanship: Enhancing Policy Focus on Arctic Health and Well-Being. The report offers an overview of the current state of health and well-being in the Arctic, with a particular focus on Alaska. Drawing from the 2014 AHDR, the report highlights the improvements in Arctic health over the past decade, such as the increasing use of traditional knowledge and culture in education, governance, and health care. While there have been significant improvements, there are also continuing gaps in Arctic health and well-being, including the negative effects of climate change and environmental contaminants on food and water security; the rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases; high rates of alcoholism and alcohol-related violence and abuse; and the continued prevalence of higher suicide rates compared to national averages.
The report examines the accomplishments and weaknesses of Arctic health programs, both in the United States and on the international level. There are a number of success stories where timely health interventions and pilot projects, such as the expansion of Alaska’s health care system and education programs, as well as the Arctic Council’s extensive research on telemedicine, the prevention of infectious diseases, and data collection systems to monitor health trends have significantly improved the lives of Northerners. However, insufficient funding and haphazard coordination between U.S. organizations are two key barriers to successfully overcoming Arctic health challenges.
Finally, the report offers four key recommendations as the United States begins its two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council:
- Create a new Arctic Council Working Group dedicated to Arctic health and well-being issues;
- Focus on mental well-being and suicide prevention through job creation in Arctic communities;
- Improve Arctic health care systems with an emphasis on traditional knowledge; and
- Strengthen the science research agenda for health related issues and enhance international scientific cooperation.
While significant progress has been made, more work is required to lower suicide rates, reduce health disparities between indigenous and non-indigenous communities, improve water and sanitation systems in rural Arctic regions, and heighten public awareness and policy momentum regarding these and other Arctic health issues. The U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship provides a significant opportunity both to raise awareness of these issues and to implement effective programs to improve the health and well-being of those who live in the North.