On Friday 12th of February, a lecture in honour of the Norwegian diplomat Geir Grung took place at Bergen Public Library. Professor Oran R. Young at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California offered a wide perspective on the various challenges in the Arctic.
- First, and foremost, the Arctic is a highly dynamic region that is subject to rapid, non-linear changes, professor Young emphasized. Climate change, militarization, oil, gas, and shipping are among the current challenges. Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark and Norway are nations in the region promoting their interests.
The most urgent issue may be climate change. Temperatures are rising significantly faster in the Arctic than most other places on earth. This is especially noticeable when considering the sea ice. Lowland areas like Bergen may be in danger of flooding in the future.
Furthermore, some argue that a ‘Great Game’ is occurring in the Arctic marked by increased military activity. During the expedition ‘Artktika’ in 2007, the Russians planted a flag on the bottom of the ocean beneath the North Pole marking its dominant role in the region. Some raised questions whether this would lead to increased tensions between the nations in the region. Despite this fact, professor Young argued that it is highly unlikely that any conflict will occur in the region in the immediate future.
Undiscovered and recent discovered gas and oilfields are another phenomena contributing to the increased interest in the Arctic. There might be considerable revenues from extracting resources located in the Arctic. However, the Arctic conditions are harsh, which means increased expenditures in and other challenges linked to oil and gas extraction. Some companies have abandoned the Northern regions based on that fact.
Increased gas and oil extraction often means more shipping as well, Young argued. Companies are using three main sea routes in the Arctic region. One along Russia, one along Canada, and one through the Arctic. Nevertheless, the latter is considered more risky, due to unpredictable conditions. In addition, most of the vessels used for shipping are too big for the route through the Arctic.
Jurisdiction and the role of governance in the region was ultimately mentioned at the end of the lecture. When it comes to fishing, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark reached an agreement that prohibit unsustainable fishing. When considering borders, the UN article 76 also provides a framework saying that nations cannot expand their territories into the Arctic region. Lastly, increased governance in the region is visible, as several associations have been established. Among these are The Arctic Council that is conducting search and rescue missions and oil spill preparedness. In other words, the Arctic is not a wild west, Young stated.
Reflecting on the lecture, an interesting question is whether the Arctic region provides a unique example of international cooperation, as marked at the 2013 Kiruna Vision. What will happen if the countries in the Arctic region reach legally binding agreements? These questions are highly relevant for the future.
Questions from the audience followed the lecture. Among these were questions about the island of Svalbard, the implications of the people living in the areas close to the Arctic, and the risk of methane emissions from permafrost. After WW1, an agreement stated that Svalbard belonged to Norway, but that it was to be a non-militarized zone. About the people living in the areas in the Arctic, the question raised was whether indigenous people are receiving more benefits than settlers are. There appears to be an increasing trend towards recognition of indigenous people, whilst some settlers argue that their governments do not understand their situations. Lastly, there is no consensus about the effect of methane emissions from permafrost. Some scientists argue that it might be a potential ‘time bomb’, but professor Young emphasized that there are multivariate explanations to the questions of environmental emission.