Newsletter: The Arctic: A Region in our Blind Zone

The OSCE PA field visit to the Arctic region earlier this spring. Illustration by: OSCE PA

Dear reader

We are heading towards summer holidays and I feel a need to reflect upon the past few months.
I consider myself a person with above-average interest in and engagement with society. Through seven years in the regional daily Avisa Nordland I have been close to the goings on of my local community. I have also always paid attention to national as well as international news.

On 1 March I started my new job at High North News and soon realised that a large and significant part of the world had been in my blind zone.

The Arctic.

I suspect that does not only apply to me, but to many more. And to large parts of the population in Northern Norway, Norway and the rest of the world.

This is serious. And today I will take some time out to explain why so.

What is really the Arctic?

You do not have to go very far south in Europe before you encounter people who believe that the Arctic is not inhabited.

Sure, the Arctic still consists of more than 70 percent sea and ice.

It is also a region holding vast natural resources as well as unique animal species.

Yet here are also people, societies, businesses and culture.

The Arctic, at least the Arctic covered by High North News, consists of the eight countries holding land within the Arctic Circle; Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Iceland, Denmark (Greenland), USA (Alaska) and Canada.

Yet even if the Arctic states share many of the same challenges, they are also vastly different.

The “urban” Arctic, which we know from Scandinavia, has fairly good infrastructure, a lot of inhabitants in smaller and larger towns and cities, and a bustling business life. Northern Canada, Russia, Greenland and large parts of Alaska, however, struggle with major health challenges, lacking infrastructure and indigenous peoples under pressure.

What we share, is geography and the latitude.

And climate challenges. But we’ll get back to that later.

A new era

The Arctic is often described as a region characterized by peace and cooperation. However, there is much that goes to indicate that this is about to change. Up until recently these areas have been largely inaccessible due to ice. However, with an ever-warmer climate comes increasing ice melting. What used to be the world’s largest unexplored sea areas have now started opening up.

What happens next? “Everyone” wants a bite of the cake.

Oh, and as I mentioned: There are vast natural resources hidden underneath the ice and the seabed. Oil and gas, for instance.

Nevertheless, the chase for the black gold is not the only tempting feature of the Arctic. An increasingly ice-free Arctic opens up the sea routes between for instance China and Russia and will make transport between the two countries considerably faster than today. In fact, the Chinese will be able to save two weeks transporting their goods through the Northern Sea Route compared to through the Suez Canal. They will also get away from narrow straits controlled by India and USA, who are not exactly their closest allies, and can rather operate through a more friendly Russia.

Keeping the trade war between the USA and China in mind, it is not hard to imagine why the Chinese are so interested.

There are also two other new sea routes that may grow attractive for commercial shipping as a result of climate changes and ice melting. One of them is the Northwest Passage, which connects the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic through the Canadian Arctic. The Americans recently kindled an old feud with the Canadians about the right to navigate through the Northwest Passage, which lies in Canadian waters.

In addition there is the increased interest in tourism. An increasing number of cruise companies want to sail further and further north, and it was recently announced that France has designed a vessel meant to take its tourists to the North Pole.

So what’s the problem? 

When big powers like the USA, China and Russia all aim for the same areas, there is every reason to pay close attention.

The chase for oil and gas has been the basis for a series of blood-filled conflicts earlier.
We already know that climate changes appear first in the High North and that this has consequences. Actually twice as fast as elsewhere in the world, according to recent research.
It is not a given that the mountain fox that last year wandered from Svalbard to Canada using the sea ice between the two continents will have the opportunity to return in a couple of years. The ice may be gone by then.

We also know that leading Heads of State in certain countries do not recognize climate changes as a problem.

And that the oil industry is by far the biggest enemy of the climate.

As for tourism, we do not have to look far into the past to see examples of weaknesses in emergency preparedness in the High North. Because even if a French cruise ship holding icebreaker capacity were to get to the North Pole without problems; who is to assist them if an accident were to occur? And who is in charge?

That is us. The Arctic states.

Dilemmas

At the same time, we know that out-migration and centralization is a serious development that applies to all the Arctic states.

We want development in the High North, both of infrastructure and business.

But at the expense of what? The climate? The indigenous people?

Should we allow oil and gas developments in Arctic waters, fully knowing that it is another nail in the coffin for our planet?

Should we permit windmill parks and establishing of data centers at the expense of the reindeer herding areas of the Sami?

Should we accept the fact that the indigenous people in Greenland have to change their diet, which they have had for centuries, because the seal and the whale are saturated in environmental toxins?

Colliding strategies
Because while Norwegian authorities focus on the people living here and their having good living conditions the USA, for instance, focuses more on resources.

China wants to participate in everything, from research to developing transport routes.
While the EU with its Arctic strategy is characterized by a desire to protect and does not disthinguish between the various parts of the Arctic.

That became clear when it banned seal hunting and importing seal from Greenland, and thus removed the livelihood and culture of an entire people with a brushstroke.

Arctic Council under pressure

These were some of the key foundational issues when the Arctic Council was established in 1996. The Arctic Council consists of representatives from the eight Arctic states as well as from indigenous peoples’ organisations.

In addition, a series of countries hold observer status, which means they may attend meetings but do not hold voting rights.

Observers include France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, China, Poland, India, South Korea, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland and Great Britain.

We recently learned that even Brazil is considering applying for observer status at the Arctic Council. Why? “Because it’s big”.

Even Ukraine is looking to the Arctic and wants to cooperate with Norway about specific projects in the region.

The Chairmanship of the Arctic Council circulates among the eight Arctic states. A recent Ministerial Meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland marked the transferring of the chairmanship from Finland to Iceland.

The Ministerial Meeting gathered businesses, politicians, researchers and press from all over the world. Including the foreign ministers of all the eight Arctic states.

It became a rather dramatic event

At the heard of big politics

On the day the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting started, US President Donald Trump tweeted that he wanted to introduce penalty taxes on Chinese goods.

On the next day, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that he would give a speech in Rovaniemi, entirely off the agreed agenda.

He spent the majority of the thirty minutes criticizing China. Perhaps not surprising. But what made the audience gape, was the attack on “his own”, i.e. on other Arctic states, most notably Russia and Canada.
 

Arctic topography. Credit: Hugo Ahlenius, vGridaia

His speech shocked the whole world. Perhaps not because of the message itself, but the way in which it was presented and at that particular arena. At the Arctic Council, a forum for cooperation and fellowship. A forum not taking a stand on big politics, but rather one that is consensus-based and bases its statements on research, not politics.

What was meant to ‘only’ be an Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting turned into the focus of global big politics with the Trump tweet and Pompeo’s rant against China, Russia and partly also Canada.
And it did not stop there.

Climate collapse

A large and important part of the ministerial meetings is for a joint strategy for the next two years to be presented along with the passing on of the chairmanship, a kind of joint platform outlining what is considered the top priorities for the Arctic as well as the main worries. Setting the course for the next two years, if you will.

But this year – for the first time ever – there was no agreement to be made.

Why not?

Because the USA refused to sign a joint declaration stating worries about climate changes and how they will affect the future Arctic.

And because the seven other Arctic states refused to agree to a declaration in which this was omitted.

In a world of conflict, international cooperation is important. Many now ask if the Arctic Council holds enough clout to keep the Arctic a peaceful and cooperative region.

In a press blind zone 

All this is literally happening as we speak. In the Arctic. Our Arctic. But sadly, many will never know about it.

During the Ministerial Meeting in Rovaniemi, there was press from all over the world present. Just France alone had two journalists present. From Norway, there were just one. And then us from High North News.

Both Norwegian broadcaster NRK and BBC used us as their sources to news from the meeting.
In my view, that is a big problem. For if the national press fails its mission to society, how are we then to stay on top of things and have the opportunity to affect political decisions?

Bodø as European Capital of Culture

Bodø is one out of two finalists in the competition to be appointed European Capital of Culture 2024. You may ask yourself what the challenges of the Arctic have to do with that?
The answer is “a lot”.

“Arcticulation” is the slogan used to market the city. Bodø wants to be the first-ever Arctic city to become European Capital of Culture.

But can we become that without really knowing and perhaps even not caring too much about what it means to live in the Arctic?

Being a regional daily journalist, I have repeatedly covered the application for the European CoC. I Have written about artists who feel they are not included. Covered the controversial nude photographing of the city’s population by Spencer Tunick. Communicated the defensive speeches from local authorities and the county. As late as just a few weeks ago, I attended a breakfast meeting in Bodø to hear about businesses’ hopes and expectations for what a potential ECoC status could lead to.

Basically, it was about increased number of hotel nights.

I have not once heard anyone reflect – in public – about Bodø as an Arctic city, about what opportunities and challenges we face as a consequence of our geographical location, or placing Bodø in a geopolitical context.

It is as if the word “Arctic” is only brought out to impress the EU

High on the agenda

The EU has, like so many others, moved the Arctic high up on its political agenda, in particular because of increasing Chinese and American interest in the region. The Union even has its own Arctic minister, a High Representative. And Bodø should have solid answers placing the city in an Arctic context if it is to make it to the top. Otherwise, it will reveal itself to be someone who only puts on the Arctic hat if and when it is convenient and might achieve something.

Because the EU is not really interested in Bodø, strictly speaking. The EU is interested in Bodø in the Arctic.

And we now have a golden opportunity to help create a more nuanced image of Northern Norway towards the EU. Show them what can be done here. That we are not just a “museum”, but rather a hub of engaged people, businesses, and culture.

No one can escape politics

Jens-Eirik Larsen, journalist and cultural advisor, recently wrote an interesting op-ed following his attending the Arctic Art Summit early June:

“If culture is to have a place at the drawing table when the new Arctic is being constructed, artists and the various actors of the cultural community must dare enter into the landscape of big politics”.
He uses the performance artist Amund Sjølie Sveen’s project “The North Great Again” as an example of art with political sting.

He also argues that artists too have to take responsibility in society and engage to a higher degree when he writes:

“No one can escape politics, Marie Bergman sang in a once popular tune. That is true today too. Culture must translate the lab exercise and academic discussions into concrete and courageous input to a High North Culture Policy Strategy. Because the Arctic does not change in a lab. The Arctic is transformed in an international game where profits go to those who take the globalized reality seriously. That is just how it goes. No one can escape politics.”

Have a great summer

We at High North News strive every day to communicate news, analyses and op-eds that aim to provide you with insight into what goes on north of the Arctic Circle. You can follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news, both in Norwegian and English, or sign up to our weekly newsletter.

Our goals is to engage and create attention about a region that sadly is often “forgotten” and “hidden” among royal scandals, shop openings and trivial road toll policies.

Because there is little doubt that the trends mentioned above lead to challenges for Norway, which is quite evident in the rather recent parliamentary whitepaper on multilateral cooperation. We are exposed, having land and sea border against Russia, a country increasingly testing our ability to respond and monitor. China’s introduction in the High North, despite insecurities about the country’s intentions, may also challenge Norway’s interests. This applies e.g. to the agreement on fisheries in the Polar Sea, Norway’s Svalbard policy and the maintaining of the Arctic Council as the region’s prime cooperation body.

The Norwegian government whitepaper is also to be presented soon. Use comments or op-eds to ask our politicians the difficult questions. Do we take the geopolitical situation seriously? Do we demand playing a role in the on-going big politics game? Are we sufficiently prepared if anything were to happen?

For the next few weeks, there will be fewer updates than usual due to holidaymaking for our somewhat modest staff. However, we will return stronger and with force in August, where we will a.o. attend the Arendal Week to promote Arctic issues and opportunities during Norway’s largest political festival.

Until then; have a wonderful summer!

Siri Gulliksen Tømmerbakke
News Editor

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