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The Search for the Arctic’s New “Gold”: Cooperation In Governance

October 19, 2015


Brandon Ray

Is the Arctic a new emerging world region, or a re-emerging region in the face of rapid change? This question focused the discussion during the first panel of the inaugural event from the University of Washington’s International Policy Institute. The panelists included Hon. Kenneth S. Yalowitz, former Ambassador to Belarus and Georgia, Matt Morrison, CEO of Pacific Northwest Economic Region, Ben Fitzhugh, Director of the Quaternary Research Center at University of Washington, and Nadine Fabbi, Managing Director of the Canadian Studies Center at University of Washington.

The re-emergence of the Arctic has come with an emphasis on cooperation. The Arctic Council provides a governance body that includes the eight member states of the Arctic, six permanent participants of indigenous groups that live in the Arctic, and over 30 observers that represent global interests in the Arctic. This organization has continued to function despite tensions with Russia, with regard to its actions in Ukraine and Syria, and economic sanctions placed on the country. What remains to be seen is how Arctic nation claims to the continental shelf will be decided under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and whether countries will abide with that decision.

There is also a sense that the Arctic may not hold the same golden promise that new frontiers often have. While the Arctic likely holds a significant fraction of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas resources, the decline of oil prices and recent glut of natural gas have likely aided Shell’s decision to stop exploratory drilling off Alaska. In addition, the unpredictability of environmental conditions and lack of infrastructure and search-and-rescue capabilities make the Arctic a viable option for container shipping in the near future. Furthermore, there are more social concerns that need to be considered: food security, cultural trauma, eroding infrastructure, climate change and contaminants, and resource management by outside entities, along with the human rights implications that accompany these concerns.

In moving forward in the tenuous uncertainty, a couple common themes emerged from the panelists:

1) For cooperation to continue, a greater emphasis needs to be placed on inclusion at the local level, not just consultation. There is vast traditional knowledge that can be shared in the conduct of research and decision-making, based on thousands of years of experience. Not including this information will continue to produce non-optimal decisions and to disenfranchise entire populations.

2) Movement forward in the Arctic requires strong political commitment from governments. The issues arising in the Arctic are beyond the managerial capability of any one country. While the U.S. has gained traction in the establishment of federal positions held by ADM Robert Papp (ret.), Ambassador Mark Brzezinski, and Julia Gourley, there is still a sense of detachment with American identity as an Arctic nation.

By Brandon Ray, a master’s student at University of Washington’s Department of Atmospheric Science. His research interests include sea ice predictability in the Arctic as well as how climate change policy has been incorporated into national security strategies in the Arctic.

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.