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What role should environmental policy play in warming Arctic?

Annika E. Nilsson
The whale bone sculpture in Barrow's Browerville neighborhood frames one of many more ships seen in Alaska's Arctic in recent summers. Loren Holmes photo

Melting ice and new resources. The image of the Arctic presented in the media and when political leaders speak about the region deals more and more often with economic development. The effects of climate change on sea ice have led to new arguments for pushing the limits of what is possible to achieve in a part of the world where cold, ice, winter darkness and vast distances have previously limited industrialization.

When the Arctic and Nordic environment ministers meet Tuesday through Thursday in Jukkasjärvi, the prospects are completely different than they were just over 20 years ago, when intensive negotiations laid the foundation for the Arctic political cooperation and peaceful development we have seen since the end of the Cold War. It has been possible to defuse several conflicts concerning political borders by means of new agreements, and in unresolved border issues there is currently political consensus that negotiations are to be managed according to the rules of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The Arctic Council provides a forum where countries and indigenous peoples meet to discuss how the future is to be shaped. Without the peaceful developments of recent decades, it would hardly be possible to define the Arctic region's hydrocarbons and minerals as realistic economic resources. At the recent Arctic Frontiers conference, the Norwegian foreign minister spoke about the Norwegian High North Strategy and how established rules-of-the-game are an important part of the policy that will open opportunities for growth and value creation. Canada will take over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council after Sweden, and the Canadian representative also spoke about development for people of the North as an overarching priority including economic growth, strong and sustainable communities and healthy ecosystems.

What place does environment policy have in these new priorities?

In the early 1990s, the focus of international cooperation was on the environment and promotion of Arctic research. Together, they became a focal point of the diplomatic negotiations, since they were policy areas where it was possible to speak about common interests, even in the face of political tensions between east and west. (Read more: The Arctic Environment from Low to High Politics – Arctic Yearbook  2012.) There are several areas in which common interests have led to positive results for the environment, not least with regard to persistent organic pollutants. The international negotiations on limiting emissions of mercury have now also come so far that we can look forward to the signing of a global convention on mercury this autumn.

Less progress has been made regarding climate measures, not just globally but also in the Arctic. The measures now being carried out regarding black carbon are hardly sufficient to slow warming, and the effects of the lack of action are becoming increasingly evident. The decreasing sea ice may receive the most attention, but changes on land are also significant, with permafrost melting and plants, animals and people having to adapt to the new climatic conditions. The analyses being made within the Arctic Council’s Arctic Resilience Report project are not yet complete, but there are undoubtedly an increasing number of scientific reports indicating that the Arctic region may have already passed the threshold to a completely new climate regime that will affect not only the region, but the climate throughout the world.

People in the Arctic region will have to deal with both a different climate and the major social and political changes that follow in the wake of increased industrialization and political ambitions regarding economic development. Maintaining the ability to steer will be a challenge, especially when conflicts can be expected over who is to lead the way when the journey goes beyond old boundaries.

It is easy to get the impression that the trend towards increased resource extraction and industrialisation is determined by climate change. To be sure, ice, water, weather and winds play an important role for everyone who lives and works in the Arctic region, but the future is instead created by actors with different interests and varying degrees of power. Today’s media and political discussion about the Arctic region is a part of the game. What role should environment policy play in this context? Is there a role that extends beyond defining limits? A role that sets the agenda?

Annika E. Nilsson conducts research on the Arctic at Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI). In this post, she gives her view of the rapid developments now taking place in the region and poses a question about what role environment policy should play in the future of the Arctic.