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.”