Photo: Patrick Huber
Photo: Patrick Huber

Introducing the new ACAP Chair: “The Arctic becomes a part of you”

Patrick Huber is a specialist in some of the planet’s most pressing challenges: environmental and energy issues. As the new Chair of the Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP) Working Group, his background in the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency shapes his ambitions over the next two years. Learn more about Patrick and his plans for the Working Group.

The year is 2016 and Patrick Huber is in the back of a reindeer sled on his way to a tundra installation site inspection. He was traveling with locals and technical experts in remote northwest Russia from Lovozero to Polmos to a reindeer culling station where ACAP had helped install a wind turbine and high efficiency diesel engine. As he crosses a frozen lake, traveling through snow drifts, Patrick experiences firsthand the challenges faced by remote Arctic communities.

They are far from the nearest road. In winter when the culling station operates, it’s dark nearly 24/7. To turn on lights for just a few hours a day requires infrastructure that is difficult to deliver and service in the remote community located in often harsh conditions. Yet, the people of Polmos have the same needs as everyone else – shelter, heat, food, energy – and as the new Chair of ACAP, Patrick will be leading the Working Group as it helps similar communities meet their needs in an environmentally friendly way.

“I was grateful to be welcomed into the community to see how they operated and understand how they live and work,” says Patrick, reflecting on his time spent in remote Russia. “Working with communities to support their environmental goals while also maintaining quality of life is a real challenge, and it’s humbling to see the fortitude and resilience that people in the Arctic have.”

Tundra installation site inspection (Photo: Patrick Huber)

Addressing our planet’s major challenges

Patrick Huber is a Senior Advisor at the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and has been involved in ACAP’s work for almost 7 years. However, working for the EPA and becoming Chair of ACAP wasn’t a linear path. Patrick started his career in corporate travel, but found himself feeling disenchanted and itching to do something more meaningful. In 2007 he went to graduate school at Georgetown and the University of Geneva.

“During that time, I realized I wanted to focus more on environmental and energy-related issues. I saw those as two of the biggest challenges for our planet,” says Patrick.

His early years at the EPA focused on programmatic work in North America, but in 2015 he moved over to the policy side where he works with international organizations – including the Arctic Council and ACAP. “I immediately knew the Arctic was a focus I could sink my teeth into and have a deep level of engagement with because there are clear, high-level policy objectives that the U.S. has and Arctic States are trying to advance on the environmental agenda. And there are also great opportunities at the project level.”

ACAP is mandated to develop pilot projects that build capacity and demonstrate emission reduction activities for contaminants. That means the Working Group often works directly with communities to reduce pollution and create sustainable, scalable solutions. “Working with partners on the ground is much more meaningful to me than working at a very high level, as is often the case when you’re working with international organizations,” notes Patrick.

"It’s humbling to see the fortitude and resilience that people in the Arctic have.” (Photo: Patrick Huber)

Small communities, big impacts

While much of the Arctic Council’s work deals with circumpolar assessments and large-scale circumpolar reports, sometimes it’s the smallest projects that can have a more meaningful impact.

One example that Patrick shares is ACAP’s Kola Waste Project – a cleanup initiative in the Kola Peninsula in Russia led by the Saami Council, an Indigenous Permanent Participant to the Council. “It didn’t require a lot of time or money and the project leads were hugely successful in cleaning up an area that desperately needed it. It has been instrumental in helping regional and local authorities understand the additional work and cleanup sites in the area. It’s also advancing a broader cleanup effort in the area. It’s really exciting when an individual small community can have that impact on a larger region.”

Just as the Saami Council led the Kola Waste Project, one of Patrick’s goals as Chair is to engage more of the Council’s Permanent Participants in ACAP’s work. “This is really important to me because the Permanent Participants are close to the communities. I live in Washington D.C., I’m not on the ground in the Arctic every day. I want to make sure that their needs are met, and their interests are advanced.”

Patrick also hopes to see all Arctic States actively involved in ACAP’s projects. “As an action-oriented body, it only makes sense that everyone is involved and takes an active role in ACAP,” says Patrick. This means also expanding projects geographically to reach more places in the circumpolar North.

One project that aims to do that is the Solid Waste Management in Remote Arctic Communities initiative. The joint project with the Sustainable Development Working Group will conduct an assessment and develop a toolkit to help communities in the Arctic understand and address waste issues. Pilot projects will also be conducted to initiate cleanup efforts and demonstrate best practices, followed by workshops and community exchanges to scale up the work to other communities.

Another ACAP project to keep an eye on is the Community-Based Black Carbon and Public Health Assessment. “Covid-19 has highlighted the nexus between air quality and health. This project is an opportunity to understand challenges in heating and energy supply in the Arctic and how utilizing materials that emit black carbon can be dangerous to human health and the environment, and some of the ways that we can reduce and mitigate those impacts in Arctic communities.”

Kola Waste Project (Photo: Ivan Matrekhin)

The canary in the coal mine

Thinking back to being on the reindeer sled, Patrick reflects on how the experience, while uncomfortable, was profound. “Understanding how their lifestyles and tools they’ve used for centuries are now impacted daily by the changing environment – that moment brought a lot of it home to me. We have so much to do, such a responsibility to these communities and peoples. We need to do whatever we can do to make sure that their needs are at the forefront of our ambition.”

While Patrick may be based in Washington D.C., part of his heart remains in the Arctic. “Anybody who works with the Arctic and Arctic Council understands that the Arctic becomes a part of you. You start to care very deeply about how this part of the world is managed and how it’s seen by others who reside below the Arctic, because without seeing and understanding it, they can’t know how quickly things are changing. The Arctic is the canary in the coal mine for the rest of the world in terms of climate change. It’s such a breathtaking landscape that deserves our full attention and protection.”