As I fly over the southern tip of Greenland en route to the Arctic Energy Summit (September 18–20, 2017 in Helsinki, Finland), I can’t help but reflect on the unique dilemma I face in attending this conference and presenting a poster on my research. My research focuses on the quandary of energy in the Arctic. In March 2016, President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau developed a Joint Statement on Climate, Energy, and Arctic Leadership, which, among other things, signaled a political desire to move from oil/gas-based energy in the Arctic to renewables. This move was largely praised in the resulting media. In December 2016, President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau announced a ban on future oil leases in the Arctic. However, this action, which seemed to follow naturally from the previous Joint Statement, received mixed reviews. Why, only nine months after the lauded Joint Statement, would the tenor of the response become slightly chilled? This top-down approach, which should have been celebrated, was criticized by local inhabitants, state/regional governments, and the industry. Obviously, this top-down approach is not the ideal way to create policy, namely because it missed the mark with those it intended to serve. What would the ideal policy look like?
My research aims to catalog the perspectives of stakeholders in this political decision to shift from oil/gas-based energy to renewables and answer several public policy, political science, and international relations questions: 1) How closely do the viewpoints of non-State actors align with national policies? In other words, if we assume that this political decision was influenced by this myriad of actors, how much political influence do they potentially have in this specific instance? 2) If the ultimate goal is to develop a coherent policy that moves the Arctic to renewable-based energy, is there a group of actors that can form a coalition to promote this agenda? Does this coalition look different in Canada than it does in the U.S.? Why? Can this coalition be aided by international cooperation (e.g., a coalition of actors between the two countries)?
If asked to find a single defining moment when this particular quandary started to gnaw at my intellectual curiosity, it would likely be two years ago, when my former advisor was asked to testify before Congress. At the time, I was a master’s student in the Department of Atmospheric Science, working with Dr. Cecilia Bitz on Arctic sea ice predictability. She was asked to testify before the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee, co-chaired by Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA). The focus was on Arctic energy and the impacts of climate change, although it is likely that “climate change” was not actually in the focus for political reasons. I’m sure it was referred to as “decadal weather” or other terms that have been deemed less politically divisive. Dr. Bitz was not the only person asked to testify on this topic, with Alaskan politicians and Alaskan Natives also presenting their unique viewpoints. At one point during this Committee meeting, Senator Al Franken (D-MN) turned to Dr. Bitz, and in a flash of his former Saturday Night Live roles, asked Dr. Bitz, “We’re basically seeing this decline of Arctic sea ice, and that’s what’s making available these shipping lanes and possible additional areas to explore for oil and gas. This is the effect of climate change, right? … And that a lot of climate change is due to the burning of fossil fuels, right? … Okay, so we have a bit of an ironic situation here, do we not? I think everyone sees that, where the burning of fossil fuels is creating opportunity to find more fossil fuels to burn?” She responded, “It is obviously ironic, yes.” He then quipped, “Yes, it’s funny how ironic it is. It’s hilarious.” In that moment, the Senator was good enough, smart enough, and, doggone it, inquisitive enough to drive to the heart of the matter.
The economics of the North, particularly in Alaska, force a situation where people (and the state as a whole) cannot afford to live without oil extraction, despite the fact that they recognize the impact that fossil fuels have on the changing climate, that diesel generators have on health in remote villages, that volatility in commodity prices ultimately has on Alaska’s coffers. The debate to date largely focuses around two camps: one that abhors further resource extraction (“environmental lens”), and one that promotes resource extraction for profit (“economic lens”). These two camps form the crux of sustainability as a philosophy. How do you promote healthy economic growth, which necessitates some use of resources, while protecting those same resources so future generations have the same access and opportunity that we have today? Although many are working on ways to improve this issue (Innovate Arctic), their work is unfortunately not part of the mainstream consciousness. And part of this is a value statement: we, as a society, do not want to give up the comforts and economic progress to which we’ve become acclimated in order to restore our balance with nature. Until we start tackling these tougher underlying questions, our actions are merely a band-aid.
Which brings me back to my flight, now soaring over the Denmark Strait. The carbon footprint of international travel to conferences is something that many people struggle with morally, as well we should. Academia has engrained in us the notion that we are to publish and present our work at conferences – both noble goals, but the devil is in the details. Many funding agencies will not offset carbon emissions for conference travel – which becomes troublesome as some airlines are charging additional taxes to offset their carbon footprint, sending the financial burden back down to the academic professional. Other formats for conferences that minimize travel impact exist. Last year, I presented at the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) International Online Conference, which was held entirely online over a 24-hour period. While it was exciting that people all over the world could attend, no longer limited by travel funding, this format too had its drawbacks. Since the talks occurred over a full day, I missed many that I would have liked to attend as I was asleep at the time. Furthermore, there were not the conference breaks to mingle by the coffee table and forge connections outside of formal sessions, where most academics admit the real value of conferences lies. Similarly, regional conferences provide an alternate means to draw on local knowledge while minimizing travel. This format still allows the coffee breaks but misses the opportunity to connect with the broader international academic community. Some universities have created policies geared toward building in carbon offsets for professional travel, as a means of promoting sustainability or reaching statewide emissions goals. This has been a discussion item within University of Washington’s Environmental Stewardship Committee, which is helping advise UW on how it can meet state emissions goals per RCW 70.235.
So why did I choose to come? I’ll admit, the lure of networking possibilities won out over my environmentalism; but I’m sure that I will at least discuss this dilemma with someone at the conference – likely another graduate student presenting a poster. Maybe nothing will come of that, but I cannot be the most effective advocate if I don’t show up.