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Alaska youth impress international officials with Arctic literacy

  • Author: Asaf Shalev
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published October 21, 2015

Arctic Council officials from around the world are convening in Anchorage this week to discuss diplomatic initiatives and policy proposals. But Tuesday evening, dozens of delegates and experts took a break from international politics for an event focused on Alaska's youth.

In the first half of the evening at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, following hors d'oeuvres and opening remarks, the Arctic delegates and experts sat back in their chairs to watch the University of Alaska Anchorage's celebrated Seawolf Debate team.

The team, which ranks sixth in the nation, sparred over an issue especially relevant to the delegates in the audience: the Arctic Council's commitment to making decisions by consensus.

One side opposed the consensus-based decision-making system, arguing the stakes in the Arctic are too high to allow a minority to derail important policy decisions.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, the side backing consensus-based decision making earned more audience support, expressed in debate culture by hands pounding on the table and cries of "Hear, hear!"

Jonathon Taylor, a 23-year-old political science major, won the room over with his assertion that "balancing the competing interests allows us to accomplish something out of the common interests."

After the debate, the Arctic Youth Forum, organized by the Alaska Arctic Council Host Committee, showcased the event's younger attendees.

Ayden Smith and Zachary Teaford, two seventh-graders from Central Middle School, were among dozens of students from Anchorage and Palmer chosen to attend the forum.

They have been participating in Arctic-related programs at school, but Ayden suggested that more than familiarity with the subject was at play, saying that students were picked for having "skills," such as "the ability to communicate with adults."

Such skills would certainly come in handy for an activity described by organizers as "academic speed dating," in which members of various Arctic delegations and organizations field questions from youth in several seven-minute rounds.

The two middle school students, who were wearing a collared shirts and a tie, intended to take full advantage of this opportunity to interview some of the world's leading experts on Arctic issues.

Ayden said he would ask about the condition of oceans as habitats for wildlife. Zachary was interested in how thawing permafrost would affect pipelines.

"Are pipelines facing dramatic destruction?" he would ask. "Is it going to cost a lot of money or cause an oil spill?"

But the students also wanted the world leaders to go beyond studying the problem.

"Instead of just saying the Arctic is melting, I want to know to how people can help, and what different countries are doing," Zachary said.

Ambassador David Balton, chair of the Senior Arctic Officials, said in his opening remarks that this kind of exchange with local youth "was exactly what I was hoping would happen" during the United States' chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

By the end of the evening, Arctic officials such as Jim Gamble of the Aleut International Association, were awed by level of interest and education among those who might become Alaska's future leaders on Arctic issues.

"I was so impressed by how knowledgeable they were about the climate change," he said.

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