Arctic Frontiers 2020: ‘Let’s Play Twister, Let’s Play Risk…’

The stage was set to talk Arctic. [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
By Marc Lanteigne

This week’s Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø took place following a tumultuous 2019 in the far north, including growing evidence of climate change’s distinct effects on the region, various geo-political frictions, and questions about the role of science in far northern development.

The conference commenced during a month when Norway itself was going through a busy political season, including in the Arctic. Earlier this month, the national government of Prime Minister Erna Solberg was reduced to a minority coalition after the far-right Progress Party withdrew in protest over immigration policies. At the beginning of the new year there were several mergers between various fylker (counties) in the country, including the controversial creation in the Norwegian far north of Troms og Finnmark county.

As well, the Norwegian government this month won a politically sensitive appeal of a lawsuit filed by Greenpeace, with the environmental lobby group claiming Oslo was in violation of its own constitution [pdf] by allowing the expansion of oil drilling blocks in the Arctic Ocean. Norway’s commitment to green policies, while simultaneously seeking to further develop its oil industry has on occasion been viewed as a policy contradiction, reflective of the still-dominant role of the petroleum industry in the Norwegian economy despite lower prices and a volatile global market.

The main theme of the 2020 gathering, ‘The Power of Knowledge’, reflected the challenges of obtaining and transmitting information not only between Arctic communities which at times can appear very far apart, but also to the global community in its entirety. Arctic Frontiers, which held its first conference in 2007, has since developed a persona as being the comparatively more buttoned-down, (and pricier), elder sibling of other like-minded regional policy events, including the Arctic Circle in Reykjavík and Arctic Encounter in the United States, with a stronger focus on business interests but also acting as a conduit for much specialised scientific discussion.

A comment board set up outside the main hall at Arctic Frontiers [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
As with previous conferences, the panels and plenaries were divided between those covering policy/business/economics and science/data gathering. The first set of plenaries were moderated by Stephen Sackur, host of BBC Hardtalk and a frequent emcee at previous conferences, and there was much focus at this event on local communities in the Arctic as well as business opportunities on the state and sub-state level.

There was noticeably less emphasis on regional politics and policy at this year’s event, with some conspicuous absences on the docket of presenters and commenters. No high-level Russian officials were in attendance, and while Greenland was omnipresent at the most recent Arctic Circle conference last October, few officials or representatives from the nation were in evidence at this event.

The first plenary did touch upon some difficult policy differences regarding governance and regional diplomacy in the Arctic. One noteworthy quote about the emerging role of great powers appearing, (or more to the point, reappearing), in the Arctic was that in the region, China was playing ‘go’ (weiqi 围棋), reflecting a longer-term strategy, while Russia was playing ‘Survivor’, seeking to hang on to its Arctic assets, and the United States was playing ‘Twister’, trying to occupy as many diverse spots at once. Vice-Admiral Scott A. Buschman of the United States Coast Guard had the difficult task of outlining American business interests in the Arctic, including the construction of new icebreakers and promoting regional economic ties, given the current US government’s evolving hard-line strategic approach in the Arctic, including challenging Canada and Russia over the sovereignty of maritime trade routes.

Mohn Prize 2020
Professor Anne Husebekk [left], Rector of UiT – The Arctic University of Norway, presents the 2020 Mohn Prize to Professor Dorthe Dahl-Jensen [Photo by Alberto Grohovaz/ Arctic Frontiers 2020]
Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide commented on the impression given by a 2019 French Defence Ministry policy paper [pdf] on the Arctic which asserted that the region belongs to ‘no one’, noting that the Arctic region was hardly an unregulated periphery. She also challenged comments made by fellow panellist Bobo Lo, a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, who had suggested that the time may be approaching for debate about the establishment of an Arctic Treaty, (often a verboten subject in many regional policy circles). Ms Søreide countered by saying that there was great satisfaction with the current diplomatic and legal order in the Arctic, and such a dramatic addition to the institutional frameworks in the Arctic was not necessary. As for the various impacts of regional climate change, Mat Collins, Joint Met Office Chair in Climate Change at the University of Exeter, stated succinctly, ‘the more warmth, the more the ice melts,’ pointing to basic physics.

For the most part, however, the remainder of the first half of the event was devoted to economic opportunities and challenges, especially on local levels. This was reflected by remarks by Aileen Campbell, MSP and Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, Scotland, who illustrated Scottish historical and economic connections to the Arctic, important at a time when the British government was putting the final touches on the Brexit process this month.

Keskitalo af 2020
Aili Keskitalo, President of the Sámi Parliament of Norway, speaking at the first plenary session of Arctic Frontiers 2020 [Photo by Terje Mortensen / Arctic Frontiers 2020]
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Left to right: Sam Tan, Minister of State, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Social and Family Development, Singapore; Manuel Barange, Director of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Policy and Resources Division, Food and Agriculture Organisation – United Nations; Stephen Sackur, Host of ‘BBC Hardtalk’ [Photo by Terje Mortensen / Arctic Frontiers 2020]
Mikhail Pogodaev, Vice-Minister for Arctic Development and Indigenous Peoples’ Issues in the Russian Sakha Republic, (Республика Саха). Despite being a region of Russia, the territory of Sakha (Yakutia) covers an area slightly smaller than that of India, thus creating numerous economic challenges given the region’s small population (965,000), and isolation from the European regions of Russia. In addition, Mr Pogodaev noted that 37% of Yakutia is protected land, and that among the territory’s governance challenges has been the protection of local language and culture.

The problem of overcoming geographic barriers and isolation in other parts of the Arctic was often discussed, including in the case of Alaska where high food and transportation prices have been considered a hindrance to development, and in the Nordic-Arctic, where despite township level enthusiasm for more robust transportation links, including a long-discussed Kirkenes-Rovaniemi rail link, the costs and logistics of the rail line, along with environmental concerns and opposition from local Sámi communities, have meant that any short term construction is unlikely. Other sectors, including oil and gas, shipbuilding, and fisheries, (as Mr Sackur suggested, ‘never forget the fish,’), showed greater promise, especially in the Atlantic-Arctic region.

The specific economic possibilities and challenges stemming from the Arctic Ocean were also discussed by representatives of non-Arctic states, including Dr Hide Sakaguchi, executive director of the Japan Agency for Marine Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC). He outlined plans for a new icebreaking vessel as well as Japan’s hosting of the next Arctic Science Ministerial conference in Tokyo this November. Mr Sam Tan, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and de facto Arctic ambassador for Singapore, described the ties between his country and the Arctic Ocean, given the threat of sea level rise from ice melting, and turned a popular phrase in the region on its head, namely that ‘what happens outside the Arctic does not stay outside the Arctic.’

Another ‘outsider’ perspective was given by Ms Annika Olsen, Mayor of Tórshavn, the capital of the (near-Arctic) Faroe Islands, who described the challenges of better connecting the archipelago with more advanced communications technology, and the success of the ‘closed for maintenance’ conservation campaign in May last year, (a similar program is planned for three days in April 2020).

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Among the many additional events at the conference was the awarding of this year’s Mohn Prize, by the Academia Borealis – Academy of Sciences and Letters of Northern Norway, the Tromsø Research Foundation and UiT-The Arctic University of Norway, to Professor Dorthe Dahl-Jensen. Prof Dahl-Jensen, with the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, was honoured for her watershed work on climate change in the Arctic. Also relevant to the central theme of knowledge-gathering, one breakout panel featured a discussion [video] of the challenges facing media and news coverage in the Arctic.

Other breakout and side events featured topics as diverse as food security, communications and high technology applications, the ‘blue economy’ and aquaculture, and science diplomacy, reflecting a still-widening array of policy and intellectual areas relevant to the future of the Arctic.