The Arctic and the Need for Greater Differentiation in a Non-Coherent Region

Resource development
was also the topic of the annual Arctic Frontiers conference in
Tromsø, from the 20-25 of January, where businesses and policy
makers met to discuss the ‘energies of the High North’. Four days
after the conference ended in North Norway, Satu Hassi, a Member of
the European Parliament from the Green party, opened an exhibition in
Brussels aimed at highlighting the threat of human activities to the
‘vulnerable Arctic’ climate. Consequently the Arctic debate seems
polarized in media and academia alike. This does not, however, imply
an unavoidable and underlying conflict of interests. Arguably, it
symbolizes a greater need for differentiation between the different
parts of a region which rivals the size of entire continents.

The atmosphere at
this year’s Arctic Frontiers conference was in stark contrast to
that of last year. Whereas the 2011 topic ‘Tipping Points’
focused on the climatic changes in the Arctic, this year’s theme
was directed towards businesses and local industry, as energy
producing activities move northwards. Regions and companies alike
lined up to promote their excellent track records when operating
above the Arctic Circle. Words like ‘sustainable’, ‘local’,
and ‘opportunity’ flourished: “The Nenets-region in Russia has
the best infrastructure for industrial development. The University of
Tromsø is the best place to establish new Arctic research. Statoil
is the most responsible of the Arctic oil companies.” These and
other statements all contributed to a general euphoric sentiment,
where North Norway and the greater Arctic will benefit widely from
new industrial activities, both offshore and onshore.

In Brussels,
however, the focus in last week’s seminar was not on local or
regional development, but on how vulnerable the Arctic environment
has become as the amount of activity increases. This is by no means a
change in the Brussels-discourse described in previous articles by
The Arctic Institute. Instead, it stems from the geographical
position of the EU-capital, located far away from the Arctic
territories. It seems understandable that officials and politicians
from more southern countries are not preoccupied with, or in need of,
acquiring a nuanced conception of the Arctic region. Combine this
with the pro-active work done by some environmental NGOs, and you get
a portrait telling the story of a vulnerable, distant, and
inhospitable region inhabited by different indigenous communities
that now find their traditional existence threatened.

This is not an
inaccurate portrayal of the region, as parts of the Arctic are
inhospitable and vulnerable indeed. However, if one defines the
Arctic region as everything above the Arctic Circle, then such a
portrayal is only one of many. The Arctic region spans 24 time zones,
8 countries, and three continents. Its territory is six times as
large as the EU. In addition, due to the Gulf Stream, the Norwegian
Arctic coast and the waters of North-West Russia are completely ice
free even during the coldest months of the year, setting them apart
from the ice-covered waters of North Alaska and Canada. Drifting sea
ice, darkness and low temperatures are no doubt common traits in the
region, but the climatic conditions vary across the Arctic region.

Furthermore, there
are considerable differences between parts of the Arctic in terms of
level of development, culture, infrastructure, and resources. The way
of life in the university city of Tromsø is different from the
industrial and naval city of Murmansk, and these cities are
relatively close to one another. If one also considers the
differences between the local Inuit communities in North-West
Greenland, and the oil producing towns on the North Slope in Alaska,
it is apparent that the Arctic is by no means one coherent region. In
contrast to some of the ice-covered and desolate Arctic territories,
other parts of the Arctic are heavily industrialized, with
significant economic production since the 1970s. The North Slope of
Alaska and the Yamal region in Russia have for decades been supplying
North America and Europe with much needed oil and gas. Additionally,
other activities such as forestry, mining, fisheries, and metal
production have had, and will continue to have, a prominent role in
many communities above the Arctic Circle.

Subsequently there
exists a need to more carefully differentiate and distinguish the
various sub-regions in the ‘Arctic debate’, especially as the
interest for the region continues to increase amongst academics and
media alike. A few years ago the scientific interest for the Arctic
was mainly found in the faculty of natural sciences, with emphasis on
climate change and bio-prospecting. Arctic research has, however,
evolved more recently to encompass the wider spectrum of sociology,
economy, political science and law, as represented by the existence
of institutions like The Arctic Institute.

Media and
politicians alike have realized the ongoing changes in the Arctic,
and for better or worse have started using the region for their own
benefit, e.g. to increase sales of a magazine by writing about
conflict in the Arctic. ‘Non-Arctic’ media like The Guardian, The
Financial Times, and The Economist have all written long pieces on
this ‘new’ region. Politicians, like Russia`s Vladimir Putin, the
Norwegian Foreign Minister Gahr Støre, or Canada`s Prime Minister
Harper, all use the Arctic actively in their discourse to promote
national identity in their domestic and foreign policies. The Arctic
has become ‘sexy’; as an exotic region symbolizing climate
change, and economic potential. Moreover, the region has not proven
to be very politically sensitive or relevant, as it is often located
far away from the volatile issues usually dominating national and
international politics. Indeed, there are conflicts of interest in
the region. But these are not the topics that make or break a bid for
President or Prime Minister.

Even in Brussels,
located multiple flights away from the Arctic Circle, there are
Arctic seminars and conferences on a monthly basis, exemplified by
the recent European Parliament exhibition
In a month’s time
, Brussels will
again be the location for an Arctic seminar, when on
Statoil and North Norway will
discuss the relevance of European Arctic oil and gas development in
the European Parliament. Again, the contrast between the
‘environmental’ and the ‘industrial’ point of view becomes
apparent. And this is exactly where a distinction is needed, to avoid
polarization between interest groups that in the end are often
discussing different parts of the Arctic region.

The March
seminar on developing Arctic oil
and gas has indeed made such a distinction, taking into account the
fact that the ‘European’ Arctic faces fundamentally different
challenges, in part due to a different climate than the
North-American or Russian Arctic. While scientists and journalists
writing about the Arctic are without a doubt aware of the differences
between various Arctic regions, these nuances are often not mentioned
in the general Arctic debate. As a result, conflicts in the
international debate (i.e., in Brussels) between the environmental,
the industrial, and the local/regional interests often derive from
this lack of specification. In the end, all these interest groups
could benefit from improved regional differentiation.

There are without
doubt contentious and volatile issues in the Arctic due to multiple
competing interests. But often times these issues are fundamentally
unrelated. For example, certain commonly discussed oil and gas
developments will not impact the lives of indigenous communities
mainly due to the lack of geographical proximity: The continuation of
oil and gas drilling in the Barents Sea has little to do with the
protection of Greenlandic and Canadian indigenous communities. One
interest group, which may in fact not benefit from a more
differentiated and nuanced debate about the Arctic, may be the
general media, who too often seem to portray the Arctic as a region
of conflict. For the rest of us, on the other hand, ‘Arctic
détente’ would be a welcome sight.

Andreas Østhagen is an Analyst for Norway/EU Arctic Policy and Offshore Arctic Oil and Gas at The Arctic Institute.

The preceding article was first published by The Arctic Institute, an independent, Washington, D.C.,-based think tank  concerned with public policy and interdisciplinary research and analysis as they relate to a rapidly changing circumpolar Arctic.

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