World Ocean Weekly

The Future of the Arctic (part three)

A multi-part series on Arctic issues exploring governance, policy, oversight, climate, resources, and the challenges for a changing Arctic.

Pangnirtung, Nunavut. Credit: REUTERS/Chris Wattie

When we imagine the Arctic we think of ice — endless vistas of white emptiness, etched by shifting dark lines and blue shadows. It is the place where no one can live and survive, even though people do. And to do so they demonstrate skills and tradition demanded by the environment to provide warmth, shelter, and food as sustenance for families and communities that have survived there for centuries. Ice is their world the way grasslands or tropical forests or coastal marshlands are ours. What right do we have to dismiss them or destroy them? What right do we have to think their lives are less than ours, their wants and needs any less important? How would we react to the destruction of our grasslands, forests, and coastal marshes? How would they feel if we took away their ice?

If we look closely, we might see that we have already diminished those nurturing environments, given over those resources to voracious consumption, to extraction and profits, to urban sprawl. We are paying the price and now they too are faced with results of our indifference.
The statistics and observations are convincing. The dimensions of the ice sheet that stretched around the circumpolar region are diminished by breadth and thickness. The glacial formations too have begun to melt, dropping huge segments like the sides of mountains into the sea. The water temperature increases at record rate year after year. What was solid mass becomes slush and open water, sooner and over a much-increased area, with sea level rise and increased temperatures, with amplifying consequences for flora and fauna and the people who have habituated themselves to past conditions and now must adapt anew.

Russian cruise ship. Norway. Thomas Hallermann | Marine Photobank

The Northwest Passage, a sea route linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, across the top of Canada, is now possible for passage by more than a few explorers and hardy yachtsmen. In 1969, the SS Manhattan, an oil tanker sailing under the US flag, was converted to carry an ice-breaking bow and made the transit from east to west to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, where she was loaded with a single barrel of oil for the return trip, a demonstration of what might become a lucrative transportation route bringing western oil to eastern cities. In 2016, a giant cruise ship with a thousand passengers made the west to east trip, demonstrating another lucrative opportunity made feasible by the changed conditions of the intervening sea ice. From one barrel of oil to a thousand tourists in less than twenty years; what will the future bring?

This potential raises an enormous number of existential questions for the Arctic. The obvious first ones concern safety and the environment. What happens if there is an accident, an oil spill of any proportion or a grounding requiring passenger evacuation in remotes areas where emergency response is impossible? No equipment, no access, no communications, no infrastructure. The responsible parties — the member nations of the Arctic Council and the United Nations Agencies — have not ignored these questions. They have approved a new Polar Code for ship specifications and safety. They have explored communications options to address emergency needs. They are concerned with the operational aspects of this new situation and in their way they are acting responsibly, albeit slowly, as only bureaucracies can. Designs and funds are pursued for a new generation of ice-breakers to escort vessels in passage, and, amazingly enough, the Daewoo Shipbuilding Company has announced the construction of 16 modern ice-breaking LNG tankers, designed for the Northern Sea Route, the other half of the circumpolar route across the top of Russia, also opening for commercial passage linking the two oceans and bringing eastern oil to western cities.

So there you have it. The assumptions are that the ice will continue to melt, the passages will continue to be open and accessible longer for merchant or expedition ships, and economic and political rights will be exercised without question. Claims and counter-claims regarding the expansion and enforcement of territorial rights will simply refine the presumption that these water ways are national routes for the advancement of national economic and strategic agendas, and all the niceties of collective management, consensus agreement, and environmental and social concerns will be forgotten. Suddenly, the under-lying weakness of Arctic policy is revealed, stripped of its best intentions and lip-service, as yet another example of the old patterns of extraction, exploitation, and profit. The ice is gone, ironically melted by those patterns, and still the indifference to the environment, the indigenous people, and to change remains.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.”

The Future of the Arctic (part two)

A multi-part series on Arctic issues exploring governance, policy, oversight, climate, resources, and the challenges for a changing Arctic.

In 2017, Finland became the Chair of the Arctic Council, the international group of Arctic nations and other interested parties with interest in governance of the circumpolar region. In its statement of intent, it underscored the goals that had been emphasized by the US, the prior Chair, a program that was long on aspiration but not so successful in specific execution. These goals were expressed by the United Nations in its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted in 2015, which could be expressed in the Arctic “as a region of peace, stability, and constructive cooperation.”

Finland subscribed to these aspirations in its own agenda statement: “The Arctic is developing into an important hub for the twenty-first century. The economic potential in the region should be harnessed in a way that brings prosperity to, and guarantees the livelihood and social progress of, Arctic inhabitants and communities. Sustainable economic development is the key to resilient communities.” The predictable focus is there: on capacity-building, risk management, connectivity, cold climate technologies and services, maritime transport, bio-economy, tourism, housing, and mining. But if you parse the statement carefully, you might sense a different emphasis on what this development is for, not necessarily for the purposes of the international business community alone, but for the advantage of Arctic inhabitants and communities. There is a difference here from prior Arctic statements of intent. There has always been a declared commitment to the needs of Arctic communities and indigenous peoples in Arctic Council statements of intent and policies, but that commitment has not always found its way on the ground, with profits associated with the exploitation of Arctic resources often exported leaving far too little value behind. It seems fair to conclude that if more of those profits had been shared in the form of jobs, housing, education, public health, and revenue, the social crises faced today by Arctic inhabitants might not be so obvious, egregious, and unjust.

Why is the Finland statement different? First, it outlines very distinct goals, projects that can begin and end with very specific outcomes. Second, it focuses almost exclusively on projects that address the more immediate needs of the people who live in the Arctic, not those with interests and applications far away. And third, it is based on the cultural values of Finland, a small nation with strong relation to the north and Nature, a practical economy, and even a design sense that is simple and utilitarian as expressed in its architecture, products, and life-style.

Thus, their Arctic priorities are based at the core on environmental protection, with concern for the conservation of natural resources and biodiversity, mitigation and adaptation to climate change, and protection from pollution and destruction. With regard to technology and science, Finland proposes a focus on emphasis on climate change impacts, through assessments of black carbon, methane emissions, permafrost, and fresh water supply among other practical research. It proposes major upgrades in Arctic communications networks and services to facilitate e-learning, digital health, social services, and media connectivity. It proposes increases circumpolar meteorological and oceanographic cooperation. It proposes significant improvement and equal access to secondary education, facilities, job training, teacher recruitment, and university experience to build resilience. It proposes a “Pan-Arctic Network of Marine Protected Areas” as a strategy to protect Arctic waters from the inevitable intrusion of transportation, tourism, accident, extraction, and other increased activity resulting from melting sea ice.

Above all, it proposes to focus on the human dimension of the Arctic — a primary emphasis on basic education, sustainable work, and well-functioning health and social services. It supports increased participation of indigenous peoples in the work of the Arctic Council and the integration of traditional and local knowledge in its programs and projects. It proposes to address occupational health hazards, small scale and alternative energy development, training for local administrators and managers, gender equality, and a Model Arctic Council to engage the next generation of Arctic leaders in the understanding and management of the Arctic future.

As an observer of Arctic issues for some time now, I can tell you that this is a very different approach from the past assertions of grand intent, vague policy discussions, and the underlying influence of non-Arctic economic interests. It is direct, innovative, science-based, and humanities driven; possible to achieve with real consequence in a very special place, and an example of value-driven action required to maintain a sustainable world.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.”

The Future of the Arctic (part one)

A multi-part series on Arctic issues exploring governance, policy, oversight, climate, resources, and the challenges for a changing Arctic.

New Alesund, Svalbard, Norway. Credit: Thomas Hallermann, Marine Photobank

Because the ocean is so wide, deep, and dynamic, sometimes it is best to look inside the larger perspective and examine the conditions and challenges of one area that, indeed, might stand for all. One regions that serves, of course, is the Arctic, the full circumpolar Arctic Ocean with all the diverse conditions, resources, and needs that are both specific and generally representative of the many issues faced elsewhere.

First, there is the problem of governance. The Arctic region is divided among eight nations with national claims and jurisdictions that often conflict, overlap, and confuse, much like the larger ocean but at a lesser scale. Efforts have been made to coordinate and resolve interests through a multi-national process in the form of the Arctic Council, a concurrence of nation states with direct claim on Arctic territory augmented by observer nations with self-proclaimed interests. So while China and Brazil have no geographic relationship to their Arctic interest, they do lay claim to a second tier of engagement. A third tier, the Arctic Circle Assembly, is comprised of other political entities, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations, educational and research institutions, environmental groups, for-profit associations, and interested individuals. The Assembly convenes separately to present and debate, support and challenge the more formal machinations of the Council. It is a lively conversation.

The Council leadership passes from one member state to another every two years; the United States held the chair from 2015 to 2017 when it passed the responsibility of chairmanship to Finland. The stated goals are lofty. The US priorities were Arctic Ocean Safety, Security, and Stewardship; Improving Arctic Economic and Living Conditions; and Addressing the Impacts of Climate Change. Truth, of course, is in the details, more specifically in the research goals, actual implementation, and financial commitments. During its two year tenure, the US expressed ambitious intent. But as with so many issues these were impeded by climate politics, budget cuts, and indifference to a problem and place out of mind; as a result, its successes were limited. Much was to be invested in observation and research to confront identified problems of acidification, black carbon, biodiversity, meteorological forecasting, the melting of sea ice, long-term observations, health problems and delivery, air quality, water and sanitation, renewable energy, transportation, ship safety and operations, renewable energy, communications, and social matters, such as secondary education, high unemployment, domestic violence and suicide rates. If there was progress, it was incremental. The continuity of programs already in place, task force and research team meetings, simulations and models reports and recommendations were all labeled with acronyms and published in academic journals and government brochures with the high gloss of success and little substance.

That may seem harsh, and I do not mean to dismiss the detailed work on single issues that was surely done. But the apparatus was in full function, an elaborate mechanism for incremental collection of data, refined recommendation, academic advancement, and some good things that found their way as practical application in some few places where most needed.

The total population of the Arctic region is estimated at 5 million persons, about 500,000 are indigenous peoples living in remote places, sustaining their lives through traditional practice, keeping their languages and cultural traditions, and very specifically, often desperately, surviving at the very end of the governance, policy, and financial pipeline. As the US has not a particularly good record dealing with its own indigenous population, it was not surprising that its agenda was short on accomplishment in that regard.

Jokulsarlon, Iceland. Courtesy of Dion Tavenier for Unsplash

During the two years of the US chairmanship two critical, inter-related global problems were up for debate: the demand for fossil fuels and the negative consequences of that demand as expressed in changing climate. The US was consumed by the political reality of that situation, embodied in an election, and while government attempted to move forward, signing the Paris Climate Agreement and implementing environmental regulation by Executive Order, the underlying premises and demands of the energy sector — oil and gas, plastics, and industrial agriculture — presented an insidious political counter-force against any real advancement of something so minor as the intention of the American Arctic agenda.

This condition remains, even aggravated by the declared policies of the new US Administration. Interest and funding would seem to be little or nothing. Indeed, no new official US Arctic envoy and participant in the Arctic Council has been nominated, and may not be, as a complete abandonment of official American engagement in the region seems likely.

But the issue will not go away, in the Arctic or in the many other places on earth where these same problems exist and must be addressed. If we are indifferent to the Arctic, we are indifferent to all of them, even to the ones in our own backyard.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.”

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