The world needs clear-eyed discussion about numerous controversial issues in the Arctic, including the mitigation of climate change impacts, native peoples, economic development, and the region’s growing feedbacks to the rest of the world. Its changing environment means there are many emerging issues which we are becoming more familiar with, yet they persist in their complexity.
A recent important study published in Geophysical Researcher Letters shows that average temperatures in the Canadian Arctic over the last century are the highest in the last 44,000 years. A warmer Arctic has many environmental and economic implications, many of which remain widely misunderstood. One of the intentions of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Arctic is to change that.
More such research is needed on other economic impacts of a warming Arctic. We know, for example, that retreating sea ice could increase the commerce of ships in the Arctic Ocean, yet thawing permafrost and shortened winter road seasons will negatively impact commerce and infrastructure on land. While a melting Greenland Ice sheet may increase access to certain rare earth minerals, this process also hastens inundation of the world’s low-lying coasts. Such Arctic threats must be factored alongside the opportunities in global assessments of climate change economics and a long-term view maintained. As we become more familiar with the facts, strategic Arctic discourse should become more focused with the following.
First, the Arctic needs protection from environmental damage, starting with global action aimed at slowing the global growth of carbon emissions. The international community must get serious about this critical global issue and we will continue to highlight this. The melting Arctic is a visible manifestation of global climate and the consequences of inaction will be a series of negative feedback loops that affect non-Arctic communities. On the regional level, where development occurs, it must be responsible. Businesses seeking to operate in the region must do so in the most environmentally benign way possible, with new technologies and response plans for oil spill remediation, for example. Regulatory discrepancies exist between the eight Arctic states and a common blueprint for companies with Arctic ambitions that offer a recommended set of operating standards would be useful.
The Arctic needs investment in strategic infrastructure. This includes development of roads, airports and harbors, railways, energy supplies, telecoms, water and waste management. Creating these installations will not only be to the benefit of the current indigenous people, but lay the foundations for sustainable future developments and population growth. This will be expensive and require public and private funds. What is currently lacking is a framework to encourage cross-border investments. This is something the Council will help provide.
The Arctic needs a mandatory maritime polar code for safe shipping. Such a code has been proposed by the International Maritime Organisation and should become required for all vessels seeking entry into icy Arctic waters. This will ensure safer engineering standards and reduce risks to human lives and the region’s sensitive environment. Other needs are improved navigation charts, communication installations, and traffic control for the region. By not addressing these issues, ill-suited ships passing through a challenging environment (even with thinner ice coverage) would present both a danger to the environment and those lives on board.
The Arctic needs resolution of lingering governance disputes. While most extended offshore sovereignty zone definitions are proceeding peacefully under provisions of Article 76 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, there do remain a small number of lingering territorial disagreements. Their resolution will further remove tensions between the Arctic states and help speed prospects for both environmental protection and economic development. Also needed is improved access to science expeditions and the responsible management of fishing areas. We intend to work with the relevant national and inter-governmental bodies to suggest collaborative solutions to these issues.
The Arctic needs science. This iconic region remains one of the least understood areas of our planet, both in terms of its physical and life science and its broader potential impacts on the world. The authors of the Nature article have identified one such example and numerous others remain. Improved data collection and monitoring is needed alongside deeper research to understand their potentially global consequences. Although our group will not conduct scientific research, we work to recognize the challenges which scientists face and aim to call attention to these issues to spur progress.
Through these efforts, our aim is to educate world leaders about the Arctic region, articulate its outstanding challenges and opportunities in an unbiased, science-based way, and raise appreciation of the importance and consequences of the rapidly changing Arctic to the world.
Laurence C. Smith, Professor and Chair UCLA Department of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles & Jan-Gunnar Winther, Director of the Norwegian Polar Institute. Both Laurence and Jan-Gunnar are members of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Arctic and are writing on its behalf.