Opinion | The debate over Arctic climate change must become a discussion focused on how to ensure prosperity for the people of the North
“[T]he politics of the Arctic are no longer the politics of the people, but they are the politics of oil”. Eben Hopson, the first mayor of the North Slope Borough, and the founder of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, made this observation in 1976. In the ensuing years, many Arctic communities have come to rely on the politics of oil as the means to assure their own self-determination and economic well-being.
The recent moratorium on gas and oil exploration in the Arctic jointly issued by Canada and the United States once again shows that the Arctic is still not about the people living there but rather remains in the realm of the politics of oil and determined by powers located far from the Arctic.
The Arctic is not a self-contained snow globe. For millennia, the Arctic has been the homeland of the Inuit and other indigenous people spread over eight nation states. More recently, the Arctic has been host to European ‘explorers’, politicians, scientists and ordinary people who followed them and occupied this homeland.
The debate concerning Arctic climate change must become a discussion focused on ensuring that the peoples of the Arctic have all the tools, economic, political and social, to not only sustain their livelihoods but also to achieve sustainable development capable of fostering their prosperity. The notion of persons alien to the Arctic saving it for the betterment of humanity, which to date has characterised this debate, must disappear.
While policies affecting the Arctic often are initiated and promulgated in power centres far from the Arctic, the peoples living in the Arctic must not only to be consulted about these policies but also to collaborate fully in their development and implementation.
For many Arctic communities, the power centres where decisions occur are both physically far from them and the realities and priorities forming Arctic policy are very different from those of the communities affected.
Decisions affecting the Arctic regions of the eight Arctic Council states are often made by the foreign ministers and civil servants who serve as senior arctic officials and Arctic Council ministers. The Arctic regions, even though they have not participated in the policy- and decision-making, are left to implement the policy or decision.
The recent five-year moratorium on Arctic offshore oil and gas development falls squarely within this description of alien policy- and decision-making. In an interview with Nunatsiaq News, Peter Taptuna, the premier of Nunavut, responded to Canada’s moratorium by stating: “I had really hoped to be part of [the government’s decision] but there was no real involvement from the North, including Nunavut … [and that is] the disappointing part of this.”
He went on to state in the article that the “‘spur of the moment’ announcement doesn’t consider that Nunavut is the least-developed jurisdiction in Canada. We’re going to be living here and we’re going to be buried here.”
In Alaska members of the legislative branch have also commented. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, together with Congressman Don Young, responded by stating that the “sweeping withdrawal disrespects the Alaskan people, is not based on sound science, and contradicts the administration’s own conclusions about Arctic development. It will have lasting consequences for Alaska’s economy, state finances, and the security and competitiveness of the nation … [including demonstrating a] lack of commitment to improving the lives of the people who actually live in the Arctic”.
Notwithstanding the Arctic’s diversity, a number of issues resonate throughout the whole Arctic. Arctic communities rely heavily on natural-resource development as a necessary means to spur major economic development. According to Nils Andreassen, the executive director of the Institute of the North, without major natural resource development including Arctic offshore oil and gas “economies of scale needed in the Arctic for investments to occur will not materialise in the near or maybe even long term”.
Words supporting devolution and honouring the rights and wishes of those who live in the Arctic to determine their communities’ development are often empty. In assuming the Arctic Council chairmanship in 2013, Canada called for Northerners to be put first. The theme of its leadership was ‘development for the people of the North’, with a focus on responsible Arctic resource development, safe Arctic shipping and sustainable circumpolar communities.
As Canada’s term unfolded, however, and during the subsequent course of the US term as chair, it became apparent that development for the North did not necessarily mean development in collaboration with the North or by the North. Colonial mentalities persist: many from outside the region remain convinced that the Arctic needs to be saved and that the path should be determined by those who live elsewhere and apparently know what is best.
That sentiment was poignantly brought to light by the words of Bob Herron, a former Alaska state representative, when he had to ‘fly south’ for an Arctic event. “We’re not someone’s convenient snow globe so they can look inside the snow globe and see all these little fur-clothed, subsistence people living in a zoo, in a museum, in an environment where they must protect it … . There’s a couple times where I’ve felt that I’ve been patted on the head and they’ve said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll take care of you’.”
Various levels of development exist in a very diverse Arctic. Some communities lack basic sewage and rely on dirty energy. Others, like the Arctic region of Norway, enjoy some of the world’s most sophisticated infrastructure. Nevertheless, the entirety of circumpolar Arctic is also home to Arctic experts – whether newly arrived entrepreneurs or subsistence hunters and fishers who have thousands of years of knowledge behind their practices. Their expertise cannot not be ignored.
The debate over human-effected climate change has been decided by much of the global community. The debate, however, as to whether the Arctic should be developed is on-going. The Arctic has had economic activity throughout its human occupation and, indeed, the ancient trading routes across Arctic Canada are now being rediscovered.
The Vikings traded with the Inuit of the Canada’s western Arctic long before 1492. The peoples of the Arctic of today will continue to seek the same standards of living as those enjoyed by their southern compatriots. The infrastructure must provide food security, quality health care, potable water and effective environmentally friendly waste disposal, educational facilities and reliable and up-to-date communications and transportation services. To achieve these ends, the peoples of the north must be heard, must be allowed access to their economic strengths, and must be part of the decision- and policy-making process.
The authors are the founding partners of Arctic Advocacy Group.
Christin Kristofferson is a former mayor of Longyearbyen and senior adviser on international relations.
Jessica M Shadian is the Nansen Professor, University of Akureyri and a senior fellow at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto.
Rosemarie Kuptana is a former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, a former president of ITK and a former president of the Inuit Broadcasting Company.
Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the authors.
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