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Britain’s Arctic Struggle

October 5, 2016

By Robert Stevens

The U.K.’s role in the Arctic region is increasingly under threat. Since decolonization throughout the 20th century, British exceptionalism has been all but ground down. The Canadian Arctic, one of the most sizable and populous regions of the Arctic, was a significant part of the U.K.’s colonial past. Yet in recent years, Britain’s level of political influence has never been put to any significant test. Brexit is dangerous for this exact reason, as the U.K. vote to leave the European Union has led some to question Britain’s place in the world. As a result, Britain may be publicly revealed as weaker than it has often presented itself to be. In such a tense political climate, British scientific and economic influence in the Arctic is of great importance and must be sustained for the country to keep the respect of the international community.

Under Threat

With the northernmost tip of British territory only 320 nautical miles south of the Arctic Circle, Arctic affairs affect Britain by virtue of mere geographical proximity. Though this means that the U.K. has established, according to a 2015 House of Lords report on U.K. Arctic policy, “long-standing political, economic and cultural ties with states and peoples in the region,” an issue requiring more immediate attention is that the U.K. is one of the first countries to feel the effects of climate change. The report further stated that “’changes in oceanic, atmospheric and cryospheric conditions in the Arctic may lead to further repeats of the very cold winters experienced in 2009 and 2010’ and winter flooding of 2013–14, while extreme weather events may be becoming increasingly likely and lasting longer, all with associated costs.” At a time when the Arctic’s snow cover is reducing by 19.8 percent per decade, climate change in the Arctic requires that Britain constantly adapt its policy.

Britain’s dying claims to empire and exploration—claims that, though outdated, may contribute to a political ego that is currently regarded as inflated—are also connected to the Arctic. There is a longstanding history of British Arctic exploration, research, and engagement, dating back to at least the 16th century. The recent discovery of polar explorer John Franklin’s ship, HMS Terror, which was lost in 1848, exemplifies Britain’s legacy of Polar exploration.

Yet nowadays, says Liz Pasteur, executive secretary of the International Polar Foundation, “science is [Britain’s] new exploration.” When questioned by a U.K. Parliamentary inquiry, Dr. Jeffrey Mazo pointed out how the U.K. “punches well above its weight”. Despite not even being a full member of the Arctic Council—as a country without Arctic territory, the U.K. officially holds observer status—a 2014 paper by the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation recorded that the United Kingdom ranks third in the number of published articles and fourth in citations on Arctic research. Additionally, the U.K. is at “the forefront in setting the science agenda in the Arctic in groups such as the International Arctic Science Committee.”

The U.K.’s established expertise in Arctic science and technology is important for improving understanding of processes that are likely to open opportunities for Britain, as well as for gaining broader insight into changes in the Arctic that have local and global impacts. The scientific research the U.K. contributes is crucial to its standing in the Arctic community and earns the country influence in Arctic policy. The British Antarctic Survey argues, “UK skills and knowledge about accessing remote and hostile environments to address globally important scientific questions, as well as UK experience in managing multi-national scientific collaborations, means the UK science community could provide strong support to influence Arctic affairs.”

Still, Britain’s exit from the EU—the exact terms of which are yet to be negotiated—might make it more difficult to access European funding for scientific research, according to Pasteur. Given the importance of this aspect of Arctic engagement, Britain must make sure to safeguard these sources of funding. The consequences of Arctic policy are of huge importance to the U.K., the country must do all it can to maintain its reputation in the region.

Out of its Hands

While the Arctic means a lot to the U.K. in terms of economic interests and as a source of political currency, Britain’s fate within Arctic affairs is out of its hands. Holding observer status at the Arctic Council, it has less political influence within the council than member states or Arctic indigenous peoples organizations, which hold the status of Permanent Participants. Despite Britain’s significant scientific contributions to the Arctic region, as well as its economic position—a 2013 report on the Arctic by the Polar Regions Department of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office notes how “Maritime transport, and shipping in particular, is an international, global industry in which the UK has a prominent role”—it is politically subordinate to countries with greater financial and political power. As Arctic Council member states, the U.S., Russia, and Canada are major players in the Arctic. They certainly have more influence than Britain, and Britain is reluctant to upset them. According to the 2015 parliamentary report, “half of the member states of the Arctic Council—the United States, Russia, Canada and Sweden—are also top 20 trading partners for the UK.” In 2013, U.K. exports to Sweden were worth around $8.7 billion; to Russia $8.1 billion, and to Canada $7 billion. Moreover, British and Norwegian bilateral trade is worth over $25 billion per annum. So, despite the U.K. playing a major role in Arctic science and research, its official capacity to exert influence in regional decision-making is rather limited.

World Wide Fund for Nature’s Rod Downie argued in an email exchange,  that “the UK has perhaps the most detailed and comprehensive Arctic policy of any non-Arctic nation,” but many critics contend that the country isn’t doing enough to safeguard British interests in the Arctic. Downie claimed that the “policy needs to be backed up by action,” and the 2015 U.K. Parliamentary inquiry concluded that engagement with the region “now needs to intensify.”

A main criticism relates to Britain’s observer status in the Arctic Council. This role does have benefits in the scientific realm; the British Antarctic Survey argued that the U.K.’s status as a non-Arctic nation meant that its science is “well positioned to provide unbiased advice particularly on issues of stewardship,” and Professor Terry Callahan sees the U.K. as filling a role of “honest broker” on issues related to climate change. Yet some, like Downie, think that the U.K. “takes its role as ‘Observer’ a bit too literally,” and that “a more progressive role for ‘Observers’ … must be established.” As a solution, Downie suggests, “The UK needs to take a more strategic approach to demonstrate commitment and continuity to the working groups, and to enhance its participation in them with the support of relevant scientific, industry and NGO partners.”

It is clear that the U.K.’s greatest asset in the Arctic—scientific research—must be safeguarded. “In particular,” Downie adds, “[the U.K.] needs to ensure that the polar scientific excellence of British institutes and universities supports the strategic priorities of the Council’s work”—including conservation, resilience, and adaptation. Yet with the unprecedented advance of climate change, along with the recent broadside attack against the U.K.’s political integrity—the Brexit vote—Britain’s Arctic policy will be shortly put to the test.



Robert Stevens is a former editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of NASA GSFC]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.