Arctic Circle 2018: Mirrors and Windows

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The Arctic Circle conference opens at Harpa, Reykjavík [Photo by Arctic Circle 2018]
This year’s Arctic Circle conference, one of the largest events dedicated to the comprehensive study of the circumpolar north, featured a diverse set of subjects ranging from hard science to complex political policies, as well as talks by specialists from across the professional spectrum.

An estimated two thousand attendees from over sixty countries, (including from as far away as New Zealand and the Pacific Islands), met to compare notes on the rapidly changing shape of the Arctic, not only in terms of regional climate change but also because of the growing international visibility of the region. As in previous years, there was much discussion about the ‘Global Arctic’, (including from the conference’s founder, former Iceland President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson), and what that concept represents. However, among the well-worn slogans were many new ideas and concepts, demonstrating that the region is not going to be declining in importance at any time soon.

The Arctic Circle took place at the Harpa Opera House in Reykjavík, and this year’s artistic displays included an exhibition of Inuit art sponsored by the Cerny Inuit Collection in Bern. Efforts to make the conference more environmentally friendly were clearly apparent, including efforts to reduce plastic waste via the sales of reusable water bottles, as well as a paperless schedule offered as a mobile app for the first time.

Canadian Inuit Art from the Cerny Collection, Bern, Switzerland, on display at Harpa [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Echoing a similar display at the Conference of Parties (COP21) environmental conference in Paris in December 2015, two large slabs of ice were positioned outside of Harpa in order to provide a demonstration of ice erosion, and despite the windy weather in Reykjavík that week, the ice blocks had melted considerably by the time the conference came to a close.

Backlit ice blocks on display outside of Harpa [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
As with previous conferences, non-Arctic governments were prominently featured at the event, with Japan taking the lead this year with a keynote speech by the country’s Foreign Minister, Mr Taro Kano, as well as participation from the Tokyo-based Arctic Challenge for Sustainability (ArCS) project.

In his speech, Mr Kono stressed the need for deepening cooperation with major Arctic stakeholders, including a focus on understanding environmental change, promoting sustainable economic activities in cooperation with the indigenous peoples of the region, and advocating for the rule of law in the region. He also noted more specific projects which Japan was undertaking in the region, including the study of the effects of black carbon pollution in the Arctic in partnership with Finland, cooperating with China and South Korea in Arctic trilateral dialogues on research cooperation, and promoting Hokkaido as an emerging maritime gateway to the Arctic Ocean.

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Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kano and Iceland Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir [Photo by Arctic Circle 2018]
Mr Kano also announced closer Japanese cooperation with Russia in the energy sector, pointing to a memorandum of understanding signed between the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMET) and Russia’s Novotek energy firm, as well as the potential for joint liquefied natural gas (LNG) development in Siberia.

China was also well represented at the conference, and there was much talk about the country’s policies in the Arctic in the wake of the first governmental White Paper on the region which was published in January this year. In addition to a presentation by keynote speaker Mr Fu Chengyu, former chair of the Chinese energy firm Sinopec, there were specific panels dedicated to the role of the Arctic in Beijing’s emerging Belt and Road (yidai yilu 一带一路) trade initiatives, as well as a ‘China Night’ which featured cultural events and speeches by Chinese officials including Beijing’s Arctic Ambassador, Mr Gao Feng, on the country’s expanding Arctic interests.

It was also confirmed during the event that the first Arctic Circle breakout forum of 2019 is to be held in Shanghai likely in May of next year, with France among other governments, also interested in hosting a forum. In December this year, it will be South Korea’s turn, with an AC Forum to be held in Seoul.

China Night at Harpa [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
There was much talk from the Chinese delegation about ‘respect, cooperation, win-win and sustainable development’ (Zunzhong, hezuo, gongying, ke chixu 尊重、合作、共赢、可持续), as the cornerstones of Chinese Arctic policy, but the question remains as to how Beijing will implement the policies laid out in the paper. The country’s second icebreaker will officially begin operations next year, and it was announced last month that another phase of Sino-Russian Arctic cooperation would begin with a joint exploratory mission [In Chinese] in the Russian Arctic Ocean region. This is to include research into maritime conditions, such as geology and marine life.

Other prominent speeches by representatives from outside of the Arctic region included Mr Sam Tan Chin Siong, Minister of State in Singapore, who commented [video] extensively on the environmental dangers facing the Arctic and the need for a global response to them, adding that ‘something is not quote right in the Arctic’. He also explained that Singapore, despite being geographically far from the Arctic, nonetheless had specific roles to play, including in debates concerning sustainable development.

Scotland, which is seeking to enhance its Arctic policy credentials, was represented, including via a speech by Ms Fiona Hyslop [video], Member of the Scottish Parliament and the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs. Another non-Arctic government, Italy, highlighted its past and present Arctic scientific acumen, including on the subject of regional climatology.

Windows at Harpa, Reykjavík [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
These speeches, however, did not relegate the Arctic states to a back seat at the conference. Keynote speaker Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Prime Minister of Iceland, not only called for [video] more effective environmental policies in the region but also for the Arctic to eventually become a weapons-free zone [In Icelandic]. This statement was telling, given the massive NATO military manoeuvres taking place in the Nordic Arctic region, primarily in Norway but also including in Iceland, this month under the title Trident Juncture 2018. These exercises, the largest of their type since the 1980s, took place shortly after Russia held its own massive military manoeuvres in the country’s Far East and Siberian regions with participation from the People’s Liberation Army.

Russia was represented at this year’s conference with a keynote speech [video] from Senator Sergey Kislyak, former Russian Ambassador to the United States, who was critical of the NATO exercises as he described Russia’s positive contributions to the Arctic. He also joked that the issue of new Arctic ports would be eliminated simply by constructing a tunnel between Alaska and Siberia, but also described the economic potential of the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic Ocean as well as the possibility of new icebreakers which would operate on natural gas. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) spoke [video] about her state’s contributions to regional technology, including green energy and monitoring tools, but also the social problems in the state such as suicides and substance abuse.

Senator Lisa Murkowski speaking at the Arctic Circle Plenary [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
During the conference, two major building openings took place. One was the official dedication of the China-Iceland Aurora Observatory (CIAO), in Karhóll, northern Iceland. The facilities, supported financially by China and jointly operated by the Icelandic Centre for Research (RANNIS) and the Shanghai-based Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC) officially opened the day after the Arctic Circle officially concluded, with the project being touted as an example of Beijing’s growing science diplomacy in the Arctic. The building’s cornerstone was officially laid in October 2016, but budget and logistical issues delayed the formal opening until this month.

The China-Iceland Aurora Observatory, (now the China-Iceland Arctic Science Observatory), in Karhóll, Iceland [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The second event was the official opening of Greenland’s Representative office in downtown Reykjavík, joining like offices in Brussels, Copenhagen and Washington, (another office in Beijing is reportedly in the works). These offices represent Greenland’s increasing interest in developing a distinct foreign policy from Denmark at a time where Nuuk is facing many questions regarding greater political and economic sovereignty from the Danish Kingdom. In August of this year, Mr Jacob Isbosethsen was chosen to be the first Greenland representative in Reykjavík.

Greenland Representative Office, Reykjavík [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Mr Jacob Isbosethsen speaks at the opening of the Greenland Representative Office in Reykjavík [Photo by Mingming Shi]
Unlike at previous conferences, there were no major policy announcements from any of the government delegations, but there was an expanded array of scientific and environmental issues discussed at the event, with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report [pdf] released earlier this month, which suggested that the planet has a dozen years to stave off global warming effects which would include an increase in average temperatures of approximately 1.5ºC. A dedicated panel at the conference described the specifics of the report with responses from Arctic actors including the Sami community in the Nordic Arctic region.

Among other topics representing the physical sciences were discussions on the growing threat of plastic waste, changes in the cryosphere, the roles of both fossil fuels and renewable resources such as wind power, as well as various aspects of climate change. There was also a greater focus on business opportunities in various parts of the Arctic, as well as a discussion of the obstacles facing journalism in the Arctic. Social issues which were explored in the breakout sessions included in the fields of local education, culture and gender studies in addition to indigenous affairs, with politics not far from the debates, including the status of the Arctic Council and the difficult questions of regional security.

Discussion of the recently-released UN IPCC Report on global climate change and what it means for the Arctic [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Over the past five years, the Arctic Circle has established itself as one of the largest and most comprehensive regional conferences. Although it is technically a Track II (sub-governmental) event, in reality it is closer to being a ‘Track 1.5’ process given the growing number of governmental representatives, including high-level policymakers, who attend the conference in the hopes of better connecting with the growing body of Arctic expertise in numerous disciplines. The conference has also played a part in educating the international community about the Arctic, its potential and its challenges.

Between panels at the Arctic Circle, Harpa [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Addendum: The China-Iceland Aurora Observatory was renamed the China-Iceland Arctic Science Observatory during in inauguration, reflecting an expanded mandate to include research in atmospheric studies, glaciology, and related fields. 

[The editor would like to thank Mingming Shi for her assistance with the writing of this post, and the organisers of the Arctic Circle conference for inviting him to participate in the event this year.]