World Ocean Council and the Future of the Arctic

The sea connects all things, and thus it can be viewed through the prism of almost any time, place, or subject. These latter come in "waves," usually the result of technological invention, an innovative policy or governmental policy change, or a geographical area that finds sudden relevance through changing circumstance. When autonomous underwater vehicles appeared, there were myriad applications, for industry and research; when marine protected areas found validation as a new conservation possibility, governments and environmental organizations rushed to establish them and count them as ocean victories; and, today, when climate change, global warming, and the melting of sea ice have raised so many questions about the future of the polar regions, the Antarctic and Arctic are receiving focused attention by many ocean-related entities.

One such is the World Ocean Council that describes itself as "the only international, cross-sectorial alliance for private sector leadership and collaboration in 'Corporate Ocean Responsibility'. Companies and associations worldwide are distinguishing themselves as leaders in ocean sustainability, stewardship and science by joining the World Ocean Council. Members to date include some 80 leadership organizations from a wide range of ocean industries." The World Ocean Council sponsors a variety of meetings and makes presentation at international conferences. The organization also participates in policy deliberations on such issues as marine protected areas, Arctic observations, private sector partnerships for small islands, deep sea mining, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and global governance reform.

From my perspective, the World Ocean Council acts as a kind of international chamber for ocean commerce. Its membership is primarily corporate entities with economic development interests, and its statements, while acknowledging ocean sustainability concepts, are presented as responsible arguments for interests that, even with regulatory policy and laws in place, have nonetheless been very much part of the exhaustion of natural resources globally and ancillary effects. The World Ocean Council, for example, states in a press release that it worked to "ensure industry input to determining European Research Aims for Polar Regions," consulting with the EU-PolarNet alliance of leading polar research organizations "to identify new ways of cooperation that deliver economic and societal benefits." It all seems so reasonable, civil, and helpful, especially in an unique ecosystem where scientific research is key to a baseline for sustainable policies, for new limits on old practices, for innovative applications of new technologies, and for economic activities that might benefit a different class of shareholders.

Let's make no mistake: there is subtle mission conflict here. If you read the overview of recommendations just announced by EU Arctic, a key conclusion reads as follows:

"As part of its strategic commitment to the Arctic, the EU should engage with the region on these three priority areas: 1. climate change and safeguarding the Arctic environment; 2. promoting sustainable development in the region; 3. supporting international cooperation on Arctic issues.

Note my emphasis. The opening of the Arctic as a result of climate change has signaled a threat of a parallel opening to the predictable interests of those who desire to exploit the exceptional resources according to the old rules and lack of regulations. Everywhere in the language of interested governments can be found a paradoxical commitment to the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, to sustainable practices, and to the development of new systems and products that will not destroy a fragile, still very inaccessible ecosystem. And yet the oil and gas, deep sea mining, industrial fisheries industries, and transportation interests are all there, in the formative discussions, overtly as in the case of the Chinese, or covertly as in the case of private oil and gas companies that, despite recent failures at Arctic drilling and the world market glut, still see the area as a golden opportunity for exploitation from which they must not be excluded.

On the surface, those EU goals are all about change, the future, not the past or status quo. And in their commitment to sustaining Arctic resources for the indigenous people who live there, they are about new ideas and projects in which those people can contribute their ideals and employment in expectation of real, beneficial return. Their profit accrues to all of us. But beware, I can read it in the documents and hear it in the meetings: underneath this polite discourse lies the ever-present threat, masked in the name of corporate ocean responsibility, of business as usual.


Peter Neill is founder and director of the WORLD OCEAN Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. Online at Peter Neill is author of "The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society" available now.