The Arctic and Its Good Helpers

From the opening of Arctic Frontiers in Tromsø, Norway. From the left: Climate Expert Mat Collins, Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, Moderator Stephen Sackur, Finnish Minister of Development Cooperation and Trade Ville Skinnari, Analyst Bobo Lo, and Director of the Wilson Center Mike Sfraga. Photo: Alberto Grohovaz /Arctic Frontiers 2020

Tromsø, Norway: The Arctic dilemmas were already lined up when the Arctic Frontiers conference opened in Tromsø Monday. On the opening panel we met an Australian “expert” who argues that we who live in the High North need help governing ourselves. In addition, there was a Norwegian foreign minister who has to cooperate with a fact-denying American president.

The latter is not insignificant at a conference that this year carries the tag line “The Power of Knowledge” as its main theme.

Arctic Frontiers, Norway’s largest Arctic conference, thus got a solid kick start when the Arctic paradoxes were visualized at the very opening panel session.

Lack of knowledge

I often travel the world and meet politicians and “experts” with a fondness for the Arctic. The debates are by and large characterized by a lack of knowledge. The Arctic as seen from outside is something remote, pristine, exotic.

For us who live here, the image is rather different. The Arctic is near, populated and regulated down to the tiniest detail. Eight independent states, with a series of international cooperation constellations, such as the Arctic Council, the Barents Cooperation and the Law of the Seas.

Or, in the words of Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide during her opening remarks:

“To Norway, the Arctic is not remote.”

Nor is it remote to Russia, which was not present during the opening. The Russian High North is currently being industrialized at breakneck speed. New shipping routes are opened, and militarization increases.

To the USA, with the current regime, Alaska is an Eldorado of resources that is to be opened for extensive oil and gas activities.

The experts surrounding us

The Arctic shares a number of features while also having at least as many differences as similarities. One of the shared features is the international view on us who live here as a somewhat remote and helpless people who do not know our own good. Another – and more serious – shared feature is the fact that climate changes are hitting the Arctic first and hardest.

“The more warming there is, the more ice will melt”, was the message from climate expert Mat Colins.

And it is here, through this simple message from the climate expert, that the world rushes to our aid with supranational solutions of the kind the Australian “expert” Bobo Lo confronted our own foreign minister and the Finnish trade minister Ville Skarre with:

It takes new mechanisms, Lo argues, in combination with new international agreements. Nothing less but a new Arctic treaty, Bobo Lo argued, and based this primarily on climate changes.

Now, there is not much to learn from Australia’s climate policies. The country is one of the very worst countries in the world with regard to climate issues, and it is largely run by politicians who deny that there is a climate crisis.

However, while Lo may be taking it further than most, he is not by far alone in demanding supranational managing of the Arctic states.

Desktop theories

There is not doubt that climate challenges need an international solution. Reducing climate gas emissions in Australia would for instance have significant importance for ice melting in the Arctic, however, no one in their right mind would seriously believe that it be possible to manage political developments in Australia through supranationalism.

Changing or renegotiating existing agreements is rather one of the biggest threats against a stable development in the Arctic. At least for as long as Donald Trump is the president of the USA and has a passion for tearing apart international agreements rather than establishing new ones.

This is the reality through which not least the Nordic countries are maneuvering, and the reason why Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide towards the end of the debate asked the following rhetorical question:

“What are the chances that we would end up with something better than what we have today?”

The answer is that with the current political climate, such proposals barely have any academic interest. They are desktop theories that do not fit with the landscape of the Arctic reality.

Nevertheless, it is a reality we have to relate to as we are increasingly confronted with it.

We are surrounded by good helpers, yet we are the ones who need to say where help is needed.


This op-ed was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.