The Arctic Circle 2019: Greenland in the Centre Seat

Harpa Conference Centre and Concert Hall, Reykjavík [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The Arctic Circle conference, at the Harpa Centre in Reykjavík, took place last week after a year in which political views of the region showed signs of becoming more divided while at the same time, evidence of the effects of climate change in the region continued to mount. This included data suggesting that 2019 produced the second-lowest summertime ice levels in the Arctic Ocean, (2012 still holds that record, barely), as well as the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released [pdf] in September this year, which pointed to ongoing trends in ice erosion, including multiyear ice, declining snow cover, and rising temperatures of permafrost.

Thus, many panels at the conference made references to tipping points and amplification, and outside Harpa a more tangible demonstration of ice erosion could be seen. Similarly to last year, slabs of ice were placed at the front of the building for a display sponsored by Sermersooq Municipality in Greenland. However, the warmer-than-average temperatures in Reykjavík at the start of the event meant that the ice blocks were much smaller by conference’s end in comparison with their predecessors.

Biodegradable glasses…

…and edible plates [Photos by Marc Lanteigne]
In keeping with the strong environmental themes of the conference this year, biodegradable and reusable plastics and edible plates were readily found during lunch and snack breaks.

In addition to climate change topics, by far the most prominent subject at this year’s Arctic Circle was Greenland, including its politics, foreign policy interests and environmental challenges. In addition to speeches [video] by Prime Minister Kim Kielsen, a frequent guest at the Arctic Circle, other distinguished Greenlandic officials including Foreign Minister Ane Lone Bagger, former Greenland PM Aleqa Hammond, the lead officials of Greenland’s offices in Brussels, Copenhagen, Reykjavík and Washington, and the Mayor of Sermersooq, Charlotte Ludvigsen. Ms Ludvigsen was also the host of a Greenland Culture Night reception during the conference which featured Greenlandic cuisine and local bands Nanook and Small Time Giants, who succeeded in getting much of the crowd dancing.

Small Time Giants performing at the Arctic Circle [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
OtC editors Mingming Shi (front centre, in pink) and Marc Lanteigne (front right, in black) getting into a dancing mood at the Greenland Cultural Reception [Photo via the Arctic Circle]
A few months ago, Greenland found itself under a media spotlight to a degree never before seen as a result of recent public musings by the US government about purchasing Greenland from Denmark, in complete disregard of the former’s self-determination rights. The response from Nuuk, that Greenland was open for business, was a central theme of more than one panel at the Arctic Circle. Other topics included the question of Greenland’s developing foreign policy space in a panel which included OtC writers and editors Marc Lanteigne and Mingming Shi, and a first-of-its kind gathering sponsored by the Greenland Parliament / Inatsisartut on the challenges of Greenlandic independence. Economic opportunities in Greenland, including in the areas of extractive industries, shipping, fishing and tourism, were also highlighted, taking advantage of the large venue.

Although the whole ‘purchasing Greenland’ story may have faded in the global press, the subject remains a sensitive one, as evidenced by a question posed by a Bloomberg reporter to Prime Minister Kielsen about whether there had been a public discussion about the specifics of a potential sale of Greenland to the US. The Greenland leader’s response [video], ‘I will answer this in short, we are not for sale, and we cannot be valued, estimated. You cannot exchange Greenland with money,’ prompted loud applause in the main hall of Harpa.

Greenland Prime Minister Kim Kielsen [Photo via the Arctic Circle]
Compared with previous years, China’s presence at this year’s event was considerably more low-key, although Beijing’s Arctic Ambassador, Mr Gao Feng, did speak [video] on China’s role as Arctic stakeholder, and its participation in environmental and maritime initiatives in the region. Shanghai earlier this year hosted the most recent Arctic Council breakout forum, which had focused on economic opportunities in the region coupled with scientific opportunities. He also noted China’s participation in the annual trilateral Arctic dialogue with Seoul and Tokyo. The prospect of a Polar Silk Road, supported by China-Russia cooperation, was also a notable subject at the event, given its potential to upend not only economies in the Arctic but also those well away from it, including that of Singapore, which relies heavily on the shipping routes connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

As well, Japan’s Arctic Ambassador, Ms Mari Miyoshi, announced [video] that next year’s Arctic Science Ministerial would be held in November in Tokyo, (co-hosted by Iceland), and spoke about the need for Japan to develop its three pillars of Arctic policy: research and development, international cooperation and sustainable use. Japan will also be hosting the next Arctic Circle forum in November 2020. India, another state in the ‘Asia-Arctic Five’ group, highlighted its developing interests in cryospheric and oceanic studies in the Polar Regions as well as the Himalayas, frequently referred to as the ‘Third Pole’.

As with previous Arctic Circle events, representatives of non-Arctic governments presented their specific regional engagement policies with Arctic states as well as the region as a whole. The government of Scotland, which had published its first Arctic policy framework earlier this month, elucidated its interest in expanding Arctic links at this year’s event. As explained [video] by Scottish Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, MSP Paul Wheelhouse, the focus of Scotland’s engagement in the Arctic would be heavily based on economic and educational cooperation, while acknowledging the potential restrictions on such policies posed by the still very much uncertain Brexit process. As Mr Wheelhouse added, ‘Scotland is the world’s closest non-Arctic nation’, with strong historical and current Arctic links.

Switzerland’s Arctic Ambassador, Stephan Estermann, presented an expanded Arctic policy vision [video] for his country, which was the most recent one to enter the Arctic Council as an observer, in 2017, drawing upon Switzerland’s previous experiences in both Arctic exploration, most notably in Greenland, as well as studies of Arctic glaciers closer to home in the Alps, which is also experiencing ice erosion effects. Last month, a public funeral was held for the Pizol glacier, located in the Glarus region of the Swiss Alps, in canton St Gallen close to the border of Austria and Liechtenstein, after it was determined that Pizol had lost too much ice mass to retain its classification as a glacier.

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Snowfall in Berne, Switzerland [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The revised Swiss Arctic policy is to be based on six distinct pillars, namely support for Swiss education and research, participation in international dialogues on the Arctic, the promotion of global scientific cooperation in the region, joint addressing of environmental challenges, engagement of foundations and the private sector, and demonstrating solidarity with indigenous peoples and organisations.

The two keynote speeches by senior United States officials were a study in contrasts. US Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who last week was subpoenaed by the House of Representatives regarding the spreading Ukraine scandal, discussed the possibilities of expanded energy technology in the Arctic while studiously avoiding any mention of climate change given that the current occupant of the White House remains a steadfast denier of climate change itself. He also stressed the need for the Arctic to ‘liberate’ itself from ‘non-democratic’ nations, without going into specifics. Unlike numerous other plenary speakers at this event, he did not take questions from the audience. As a recent commentary in Cryopolitics suggested, Mr Perry’s speech would have been a better fit in 2013, when oil prices were high and talk of energy scramble in the Arctic was ubiquitous.

Former Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson presenting the 2019 Arctic Circle Prize to former US Secretary of State John Kerry. [Photo via the Arctic Circle]
Former US presidential candidate, senator and Secretary of State in the Barack Obama administration, John Kerry, was this year’s recipient of the Arctic Circle Prize, which had previously been awarded [video] to former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in 2016. In introducing Mr Kerry, Arctic Circle founder and former Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson credited him for his contributions to the successful completion of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, (the same agreement from which the current administration is seeking to withdraw).

Mr Kerry was considerably less sanguine than Mr Perry about US policies in the Arctic, and while not mentioning the current US president by name was critical of the current administration’s approach to growing climate change problems. In his acceptance speech [video], he explained a new initiative to combat climate change effects, World War Zero, which would include other senior American politicians including former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former head of the American Environmental Protection Agency Christine Todd Whitman. Mr Kerry hoped that the US-led initiative would enlist other major powers given the urgency of the crisis on a global level.

Arctic Circle conference at Harpa [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The two major trends in the Arctic in recent years, climate change and its effects, and the widening and deepening of Arctic interests both within the region and without, were very much on display this year, and although Greenland was taking centre stage, there was no shortage of other Arctic actors and issues seeking to get on, and remain on, the polar agenda.