By Ingrid A. Medby
Another year of Arctic conferences has begun, and first up was Arctic Frontiers in Tromsø, Norway. With an ever-dropping oil price and the U.N. Climate Conference (COP21) fresh in mind, the most surprising thing to emerge from the week was the rhetoric of “business as usual” in the Arctic. However, while the content of policymakers’ speeches remains largely unchanged, the discussion’s hue has shifted: both political and commercial approaches to the region are now to be “green” as they harvest from the great “blue.” The question now is whether a shift in practice will follow.
It has become a bit of a cliché to introduce the Arctic through the 2008 U.S. Geological Survey data of undiscovered petroleum in the region. Nevertheless, in conjunction with the preceding Russian flag-planting on the North Pole’s seafloor, the report undeniably fueled high interest and speculation in the region. Media commentators certainly have not hesitated drawing the arrow between (probable) petroleum to a geopolitical scramble.
Last year, the publication that changed the Arctic debate was a paper in the journal Nature. There, the authors argued that in order for global warming to stay beneath the 2-degree limit, Arctic fossil fuels have to stay in the ground. With oil prices today sinking to new lows and the results of the COP21 agreement gradually sinking in, the petroleum prospects of the Arctic are increasingly looking like no more than pipe dreams.
Despite this, when policymakers, business leaders, and scientists gathered in Tromsø, Norway, for the annual Arctic Frontiers conference at the end of January, it seemed like the significance of recent events had not yet registered. Many talks and presentations still centered on how to discover and extract that elusive petroleum, albeit in a “greener” manner. The familiar arguments were still to be heard: Gas is cleaner than coal, so should be—has to be—part of the solution; or, extraction here is cleaner than elsewhere, so therefore we should—have to—continue to do so.
The most controversial issue at the first of this year’s Arctic conferences was therefore just how uncontroversial Arctic resource extraction still seemed. While climate change and environmental concerns are always to be reckoned with in any Arctic debate (after all, they are also the reason for the Arctic’s “opening”), the new elephant in the room remained largely unacknowledged, namely the ever-dropping oil price and resulting gross unprofitability of new Arctic offshore ventures.
In the Arctic, some of the politicians and business people by the lectern seemed convinced that it is still business as usual. Not wholly unlike the Crimea conflict or the current refugee crisis playing out between Norway and Russia on their Arctic border, extra-regional concerns were brought up as little as possible. “Perhaps if we ignore them, they’ll go away?” Instead, all the mandatory ingredients of an Arctic conference were there; Lempinen’s bingo sheet could be crossed out numerous times over.
In addition to the now somewhat clichéd statements (“there is not one but many Arctics” being a personal favorite), there was also some very welcome new food for thought. For example, 2016 marks the 20th year anniversary of the Arctic Council—a milestone well worthy of reflection. All eight Arctic states, several Permanent Participants, and observers were represented and invited to offer their visions for the future. The event also welcomed the Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat to the Arctic Council’s Secretariat in Tromsø—a development that will hopefully assist in coordination and communication. As President of the Sami Parliament Aili Keskitalo pointedly remarked, there has been enough talk of the inclusion of Indigenous and local peoples, it is now time to “walk the walk.”
As these achievements, new developments, and groundbreaking science were celebrated, the less cheery (for some) fact that the Arctic hydrocarbon hype may be on the wane was dressed up and coated in a blue-green veneer. If one phrase was to sum up the conference it would be the “the green shift” (A badly translated Norwegianism—det grønne skiftet translates more akin to “the green transition,” i.e., a more gradual change than “shift” would imply).
It seemed like nearly everyone with a plenary slot adopted the green shift and applied it as they saw fit—whether it be a full-on shift to renewables or a shift to ever-so-slightly greener ways of pumping the oil up from its subsea lairs. As a member of the audience dryly remarked, the green shift is already in its nascent days in danger of becoming as substance-less as sustainability– a term that simultaneously offers everything and nothing. While no one can define it, we can all agree that, yes, we want it; yes, this is positive.
The risk of robbing this “greening” of useful content is certainly there, but nevertheless, it provided a much-needed infusion of color to an otherwise predictable discussion. Norwegian Minister of Climate and Environment Vidar Helgesen offered the assertion that “green is blue and blue is green.” Or, in other (perhaps more helpful) words, truly taking environmental (and economic) concerns seriously, the focus needs to be on the potential in the Arctic Ocean. That is, new ideas and ventures are needed that harvest the renewable riches of the sea itself—ranging from fish to energy to medicine to tourism, rather than what lies beneath it.
Perhaps the economic strain currently placed on the oil industry was needed in order to move the debate from promises of potential Arctic bonanzas to a more pragmatic look at what we know, can do, and have. Instead of passively awaiting the southern investor-savior in shining armor, what is already in the north ought to be capitalized upon. This includes not only oceanic resources, of course, but also renewed emphasis on, for example, the wealth of culture, traditions, knowledge, and innovative ideas to emerge in and from the Arctic. As Director-General of the Danish Shipowners’ Association Anne H. Steffensen succinctly put it, “we have gone from hyper-optimism to realism” in the Arctic. This is not a bad thing, but a welcome change.
At the start of 2016, Arctic discourse therefore sounds similar to what it did before. However, aided by developments far from the region itself, non-oily voices are increasingly being heard in said discourse. Green, blue, and blue-green shifts aside, space has opened up for new thoughts, ideas, and hopefully, action. As the Arctic Frontiers conference itself celebrated its 10th anniversary, it opened up for a host of new events for both local people and youth. Film-screenings, concerts, debates, exhibitions, and perhaps most commendably, school-visits—here, tropes of green extraction methods seemed miles away. Instead, the message was clear: “We are the future, so listen to us.” In the end, this is the shift we need in the Arctic—from promises of yesteryear to concrete actions for a colorful future.
Ingrid A. Medby is a PhD candidate in Human Geography at Durham University, with a focus on Critical Political Geography and the ways in which national identity features in political-territorial legitimization processes in the Arctic.
[Photos Courtesy of Heidi Mariuka]
This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.