Arctic Frontiers – Poolside Reflections

poster2Although I’m now kicking back by the swimming pool at a hotel in Florida, my thoughts are still in Tromsø, Norway, several hundred miles above the Arctic Circle, where last week I attended the Arctic Frontiers conference, an event that combines a 2-day ‘policy’ session (featuring government ministers, oil and gas industry executives, etc.) with a 3-day ‘science’ session (where we lesser types get to have our voices heard). As a public service to those who couldn’t afford the registration fee (about £1,100 for non-students), I’m using this opportunity to present a few of the ‘greatest hits’ from my 20 pages of notes from the Policy session (and another 15 from the Science session).

Given that the event was held just a few days after the Algerian hostage crisis ended and Norway’s Statoil had a major stake in the seized gas facility, it’s not surprising that the crisis was mentioned by several speakers, including Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Espen Barth Eide. More interesting was that it didn’t seem to occur to anyone at the conference to use the crisis to reflect on the risks and vulnerabilities that emerge when one extends oil and gas development into sparsely inhabited, isolated ‘frontier’ zones populated by communities that don’t perceive that they are benefiting from the development. Of course, the gas facility hostage crisis was not directly over oil and gas resources: so far as I know the facility wasn’t attacked because of a conflict over who had rights to the gas beneath; rather it seems fair to assume that it was attacked because it was a target of opportunity for a group that more generally opposed Western involvement in the Sahel. But, of course, ‘Western involvement in the Sahel’ takes us right back to oil and gas. In this context, it was striking how speakers at Arctic Frontiers were unwilling to connect the dots between challenges of Arctic oil and gas extraction (and regional development more generally) and the political/logistical issues that have accompanied oil and gas extraction elsewhere in the world. Indeed, the only discussion that I can recall regarding oil and gas extraction beyond the Arctic was when speakers discussed how the success of fracking (especially in the United States) might reduce interest in expensive Arctic resources. That’s one of the reasons why I’m excited about the workshop that I’m hosting tomorrow in Tallahassee.

As occurs at any diplomatic conference, many of the speeches were predictable. Everyone stressed that the Arctic is a zone of peace and cooperation, which I guess is nice. Also everyone loves UNCLOS which helps to guarantee order and stability in the region. That’s nice too. Anyone who’s been researching the Arctic for the past few years knows that you can’t be around an Arctic official without hearing this within the first few minutes (usually accompanied by a statement about how the media doesn’t get it). It so happens that I (mostly) agree with this characterization of Arctic geopolitics, but only when one limits one’s definition of ‘geopolitics’ to interstate conflict (and this was the definition of ‘geopolitics’ specifically articulated by one Norwegian political scientist in the ‘Science’ section).

Everybody likes science too. For states beyond the Arctic 5, it gives them an excuse to be in the Arctic Ocean, contributing something but also establishing a (subtle) presence. For industry, ‘science’ gets someone else to pay for necessary basic research. And for the scientists (and science bureaucrats) present at the meeting, preaching the value of science is a way to say ‘I’m important’ to their funders from national research councils and relevant ministries who are in the audience. So UNCLOS, science, and peace and cooperation all came out as winners. What’s not to love about the Arctic?

A bit more interesting was how everybody expressed their love for the Arctic Council, but for very different reasons. I think I’ve figured out the formula: If you want to be admitted as a permanent observer, you say that it’s a great institution and see where flattery will get you; if you’re a Nordic member who wants to allow more observers and increase the AC’s powers, you say that it should be allowed to grow; and if you’re a permanent participant  who’s worried that expansion will reduce your influence, then you say that it’s such a great institution that it shouldn’t be changed. All this was occurring, in Tromsø, the new home of the AC’s permanent secretariat, and this meant that the conference was one big Arctic Council love fest. Speaking of the AC, given the huge number of references to the upcoming signing of the Oil Spill Response Agreement it seems clear this will certainly be signed at the upcoming ministerial meeting.

The indigenous perspective was interesting there as well, especially since I had done most of my previous Arctic research in North America. The only reference to any sort of trans-border indigenous Arctic solidarity (or to the Arctic being a unique space wherein the indigenous population somehow has the potential, or the moral imperative, to override state borders) was made by one of the two true dissidents in the policy session: Galina Platova from the Association of Nenets People. By contrast representatives from the Norwegian Sami and from Greenland, as well as, not surprisingly, Canadian Minister of Health (and Minister to the Arctic Council) Leona Aglukkaq, all made much of indigenous issues but stayed very far from saying that any radical transformation of the state system (other than Greenlandic independence) would be needed to address these issues.

My big education at the conference was in Arctic fisheries, something that I knew very little about and on which much of my knowledge (I now know) was wrong. The short  summary is that there are very few areas or species that are likely to benefit from climate change….Russia’s Kara Sea may be the big winner here.

It was useful (if a bit overwhelming) to have this injection of Arctic knowledge just a week before meeting with my co-authors to finish off the Contesting the Arctic book, but that will be subject of another blogpost.

Phil S.

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One thought on “Arctic Frontiers – Poolside Reflections

  1. Pingback: Where’s Phil? The Tromsø-Tallahassee-Connecticut-New York tour |

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