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“One Arctic” or Many?

“One Arctic” or Many?

June 8, 2016

By Wilfrid Greaves

In April, the United States marked the midpoint of its two-year term as chair of the Arctic Council. Unlike the country’s first chairmanship shortly after the Council’s formation in the mid-1990s, this time the United States has used its leadership position to set an ambitious agenda for political cooperation in the circumpolar region. The theme of the current chairmanship is “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges, and Responsibilities.” President Obama appointed a four-star Coast Guard admiral as the first-ever U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic to make progress on three thematic areas: improving economic and living conditions in Arctic communities; Arctic Ocean safety, security, and stewardship; and addressing the impacts of climate change.

But, as U.S. officials acknowledge, the theme “One Arctic” is borrowed. In July 2014, the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC)—one of the Arctic Council’s six Permanent Participants representing the region’s indigenous peoples—held its General Assembly in the town of Inuvik in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The theme of that assembly was “Ukiuqta’qtumi Hivuniptingnun—One Arctic, One Future,” and the principles and political priorities of the Inuit delegates released in the summary declaration were: Inuit inclusion within decision-making and other international fora like the Arctic Council, environmental stewardship, safe shipping and fisheries, sustainable economic development, Inuit health and well-being, food security, improved communications within the circumpolar region, improving Inuit education and language use, and traditional knowledge and science. The General Assembly also reaffirmed the principles enshrined in previous ICC statements, namely the Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic and the Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Resource Development Principles in Inuit Nunaat.

The themes expressed by the United States and the ICC may seem similar, but they mask the diversity of opinions, priorities, and defining features that characterize people both within and beyond the Arctic. “One Arctic” implies that the circumpolar Arctic can, and should, be understood as a single, coherent region. It denotes “the Arctic” as a definable place with a common set of challenges and opportunities, and suggests its people and political leaders share a vision for its future. As such, the ideal of “One Arctic” masks the reality of a region whose differences outnumber its similarities, and where agreement over what the future should look like is elusive. In fact, the Arctic Human Development Report notes, “there is nothing intuitively obvious about the idea of treating the Arctic as a distinct region.” It even questions “the appropriateness of treating the Arctic as a region at all.”

The Arctic has long been a site of disagreement between states, local communities, indigenous peoples, private industry, and non-governmental organizations. Such conflicting views emphasize that the Arctic is more usefully divided into various sub-regions, since ecological, political, and social variation result in profoundly different experiences of what it means to live in, and be a part of, the Arctic. There are differences within the Arctic region as a whole, within the Arctic regions of specific circumpolar states, and within specific Arctic cities and smaller communities. Some Arctic regions of different countries have more in common with each other than they do with other Arctic regions of the same state. While some parts of the Arctic are practically indistinguishable from regions farther south, others are among the most remote, inaccessible, and inhospitable places on the planet.

From the perspective of southerners (i.e. non-Arctic residents), the perceived uniformity of the Arctic is derived from its distinct features such as high latitude, frigid winter temperatures, large seasonal variation, and unique wildlife. But, at approximately 15.5 million square miles (roughly 8 percent of Earth’s surface), the Arctic is so enormous that, even in ecological terms, there is no agreement over where it starts or stops. Different definitions base its boundaries on various geographic or ecological factors. As the figure below illustrates, depending which of these definitions is employed, the boundaries of the Arctic expand or contract to include or exclude millions of square miles of territory, distinct species of flora and fauna, and hundreds of thousands of people.

“One Arctic” or Many?

Even though climate change has become virtually synonymous with the Arctic, it is having different impacts across the region. For instance, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report note that average temperatures in northern Europe have risen by less than half as much as in most of northern Canada. In fact, Scandinavia has never been as cold as the North American Arctic due to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, which makes northern Scandinavia, though at very high latitudes, much milder than elsewhere around the pole. This also means that defining features of life in northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and Russia, such as sea ice and permafrost, have not been significant to life in the European Arctic.

The Arctic is as diverse politically as it is ecologically. While generally understood to comprise territories within eight sovereign states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States), even this is disputed. A sub-group called the Arctic 5, consisting of only the coastal Arctic states, has periodically held high-level official meetings and signed agreements and declarations among themselves without including Iceland, Finland, Sweden, sub-state representatives, or indigenous peoples. Regional organizations like the Northern Forum include different state and sub-state members, and non-Arctic states like China, Japan, South Korea, India, and the United Kingdom claim a role in Arctic governance. Even within a single state there can be disagreement over the extent of Arctic territory and which regions or communities are properly viewed as being in “the Arctic.”

Meanwhile, Arctic states disagree over key political issues. Canada has longstanding legal disputes with the United States and Denmark over boundaries in the Beaufort Sea and Hans Island, respectively. Canada and Russia also share similar positions on the legal status of the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route that are not supported by their Arctic neighbors. The United States has not signed the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which provides the international legal framework governing maritime boundaries in the region. Members have disagreed over the role and number of observers on the Arctic Council, as well as over what role NATO should play in contributing to regional security. And, in addition to the Arctic 5, states have supported alternative organizations to the Arctic Council, such as the Arctic Circle forum and Arctic Economic Council, as more favourable fora for progress on specific issues. And on the central issue of climate change, all Arctic states except Russia have committed to factoring climate change into decisions about economic development in the polar region.

Likewise, though Arctic indigenous peoples constitute one of the region’s defining political features, their degree of political empowerment varies considerably. Some peoples, notably Inuit in Greenland and Canada, have achieved a high degree of political autonomy and devolution within their respective contexts, while other Arctic indigenous peoples are represented by non-state actors such as the Alaska Native Regional Corporations or quasi-official bodies like the Sámi parliaments in Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Meanwhile, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), also a Permanent Participant on the Arctic Council, has been sanctioned by the Russian government for objecting to expanding oil and gas drilling in northern Russia. The differences in indigenous political empowerment between Russia and the Western Arctic states highlights another crucial difference: While seven of the circumpolar states are liberal democracies with strong constitutional and legal protections for all their inhabitants, Russia is a quasi-democracy with authoritarian tendencies, selective application of the rule of law, an unpredictable foreign policy, and complex but generally strained historical relations with its Arctic neighbors.

Indeed, no discussion of Arctic diversity is complete without noting that due to its size, population, culture, and unique military and industrial legacy as a former superpower, Russia is an Arctic outlier in virtually every respect. More than half of all territory in the Arctic is Russian, as are more than half of the region’s 4 million inhabitants, including more than 40 distinct indigenous peoples located in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Three of the four largest cities above the Arctic Circle are Russian, as are several of the largest urban centers in the broader polar region. At over 300,000 residents each, Murmansk and Arkhangelsk are several times larger than the entire populations of northern Canada or Greenland.

Even beyond Russia, urbanization is a major issue in the Arctic, with large proportions of the region’s population inhabiting other relatively large cities such as Anchorage, Alaska; Rovaniemi, Finland; and Tromsø and Bodø in Norway. The variation between urban and rural Arctic life further demonstrate that differences exist like fractals at every scale of analysis. For instance, about as many people live in Whitehorse, Yukon as in the entire Canadian territory of Nunavut, but more people live in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavík than in all 1.4 million square miles of the Canadian North. While more than half of the Arctic’s population live in Russia, this represents just 1.4 percent of Russia’s total population. While only one quarter as many people live in the Norwegian High North, this represents 10 percent of Norway’s 5 million people.

There is no one Arctic region, but rather diverse, multi-dimensional national and sub-national Arctics as distinct from each other as they are similar. Efforts to unify the Arctic risk homogenizing meaningful differences and obscuring the fact that the needs and interests of people, communities, and states vary across the region. Moreover, as the transformation of the Arctic continues due to climate change, modernization, and integration into the global economy, it will not become more similar. Rather, these changes will magnify the differences that already exist and all aspects of human and non-human life will continue to become more distinct across the circumpolar region.



Wilfrid Greaves is a lecturer at the Trudeau Centre for Peace, Conflict and Justice. His research examines security in the circumpolar Arctic, as well as natural resource extraction, climate change, and Canadian foreign policy. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto.

The World Policy Institute would like to acknowledge the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s role in support of knowledge mobilization from the One Arctic Symposium.

[Photo courtesy of Mike Beauregard]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.