By Paul Massaro, policy advisor
and Jordan Warlick, staff associate
On the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans volunteered and demonstrated across the country to celebrate the importance of the Earth and environment for the very first time. Founded by Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson and co-founded by Republican Senator Pete McCloskey, and supported by Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, Earth Day demonstrates a bipartisan commitment to protection of the environment. By the end of that year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was founded and three key pieces of legislation were passed by Congress: the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act. Today, Earth Day is observed internationally and is considered the largest secular observance in the world, celebrated by over a billion people every year.
Since its inception, the OSCE has recognized environmental issues as fundamental to European peace and security. The 1975 Helsinki Final Act reads, “efforts to develop co-operation in the fields of trade, industry, science and technology, the environment and other areas of economic activity contribute to the reinforcement of peace and security in Europe, and in the world as a whole.”
Economic and environmental issues make up the second of three core baskets of the Helsinki Final Act, also known as the OSCE’s second dimension: the Economic and Environmental Dimension. In 1997, OSCE participating States established an Office of the Coordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities (OCEEA), dedicated to promoting international cooperation on these issues. The OCEEA, led by Dr. Halil Yurdakul Yigitgüden since February 2013, identifies OSCE environmental goals and priorities; organizes the meetings of the Economic and Environmental Forum; and supports field missions on environmental initiatives in areas such as water management, waste management, and sustainable energy.
Although there are many areas of environmental concern that are often overlooked, the Helsinki Commission has recently spotlighted one issue in particular: the Arctic. In November 2016, the Helsinki Commission held a congressional briefing on nuclear pollution in the Arctic. The total catalogue of nuclear waste in the Arctic is staggering, and while most of the waste originated from Soviet-era Russian dumping, the United States and the United Kingdom are also responsible for some of the legacy waste. The panelists at the briefing, including expert Nils Bøhmer of the Bellona Foundation, Julia Gourley of the State Department, and Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, considered approaches to handling nuclear waste in the Arctic and working with international partners on this issue.
Nuclear pollution is only one of many concerns facing the Arctic region. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, over the last 20 years atmospheric temperatures have increased at a rate at least three times the global average, and as of 2011 sea ice thickness was 42 percent below what it was in 1979. If trends continue, summers may produce ice-free waters in the Arctic Ocean by the late 2030s. The melting of Arctic ice will likely have an impact on sea levels and ocean currents, and produce other environmental changes. Warming waters may also open up opportunities for new shipping routes and other development, which will transform the region’s geostrategic environment.