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The Arctic Indigenous Peoples – the politics of climate change

Posted by / 30th January 2014 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , / -

The US, by a country mile, has been the world’s biggest contributor to greenhouse gasses, but the cast of the dice has fated the Arctic as the region most severely effected by the resulting climate change. In January the global media buzzed with well warranted concern as a polar vortex wreaked havoc across the US. Dozens of Federal warnings hailed an unprecedented deep freeze posing an economic chill and risk to life. What though of the deeper and more pervasive impact of Arctic climate change on the lifestyles and livelihoods the 400,000 indigenous inhabitants of the polar region?

The UN offers a series of defining criteria for indigenous and tribal people which build on principles of self-identification and of historical continuity with pre-colonial or pre-settler societies. Additionally the criteria include important reference to the special and intimate relationship between indigenous peoples and their environments. This co-existence explains why indigenous culture is especially vulnerable to environmental change.

Given the inhospitable climate, the Arctic is not blessed with a diverse ecosystem – infertile soils, scant rain, hectic winds and short days support only limited and uniform vegetation. In turn, the few inhabiting fauna are relatively specialised and, in general terms abundant. The narrowness of life makes for an ecosystem that is unstable and vulnerable to shocks; explaining why the pace and scale of Arctic climate change is so alarming. In the last few decades Arctic temperatures increased twice as much as global averages. Each aspect of change presents as particular threats to particular species. For example, melting sea ice on which polar bears and walruses are dependent, is driving dramatic declines in their populations. However specific threats have general impact, given high levels of Arctic interdependence, spreading troubles like tumbling dominos through the ecosystem and beyond. Shifts in the region’s climate and ecology question the prospect of sustaining indigenous culture including livelihoods.

Indigenous peoples make up around 10% of the population of the Arctic. Comprising many – historically, economically and culturally – distinct populations. In Russia there are numerous indigenous groups including the Saami, Evenk, and Chucki. Alaska is home to the Inupiat, Yup’ik and Aleut. With Inuit living in the Canadian Arctic and in Greenland. This differentiation suggests no single, monochrome impact will arise from a changing climate. No one outcome, no predictable course that can be planned for in neat documents authored from the capitals of the Arctic states. Impacts crisscross traditional livelihoods; the mainstream economy; physical infrastructure; cultural and social organisation; and health. Nothing is untouched as ice melts; waters rise and warm; snow, wind, rain and storm conditions change or intensify, temperature variations exaggerate; coast lines erode; and permafrost melts. Whether herding reindeer, hunting seal, fishing in Arctic waters, foraging for forest berries or selling skills and labour in the formal economy all bets are off.

Take a single example of ringed seal hunting. Since seals are dependent on pack ice -playing an important habitat for rearing pups – their populations are in decline and moving. Hunters need to travel further distances, for longer, in more dangerous, less predictable weather. Carrying more supplies and equipment over ice that is less secure and in a landscape that is increasingly unidentifiable by traditional landmarks. Dog-pulled sleighs have to be exchanged for snowmobiles – expensive to buy and maintain and, unlike Huskies, not equipped with a natural ability to detect thin ice. Traditional methods for drying and storing meat are now less dependable.

It is however disingenuous only to stress negative impacts, however deep and far reaching they may seem. There are plenty of positives too that can be offered; increases in some caribou herds, fish species migrating to warming Northern waters to name a couple. Also there is the question of perception, whose opinion determines whether change is good or bad? Climate change opens doors to large-scale economic multi-sectoral growth. Opportunities in oil, gas and mineral exploration and extraction, shipping, fishing, forestry, tourism and public administration. It is for Arctic people, expressing their pluralism, to weigh up prospects for jobs, income and portable skills against risks of pollution, land grab, economic exploitation, urbanisation and traditional decline.

Economic and cultural transition is not new to the Arctic, it is the increasing rate of change that makes the eyes water. Seasonal variation of the climate is part of Arctic life and has always required adaptability. Arctic peoples have needed to vary diet, place and type of settlement, hunting, gathering and herding patterns. Historically variable weather patterns however need to be anchored in the broader context of change arising from interaction with and the influence of non-indigenous populations. From at least the beginning of the 20th Century state policies have impinged on indigenous ways of life. New foods and lifestyles,  diseases, technology; increasing integration with the national and global economy, and policy directives relating to land rights, settlements and education. These have led to shifts in family structure – away from multi-generational groups, declines in the use of indigenous languages, population concentration and permanent settlement based on private not communal ownership.

The word poverty was absent from the Arctic indigenous lexicon, as it had been possible, until relatively recently, for people to live sustainably from solely traditional livelihoods. For indigenous peoples now, a mixed (traditional and mainstream) economy is the norm with few to able live off the mainstream economy alone and vice versa. This illustrates the risk that people will go hungry where the rate of decline in traditional livelihoods is not perfectly matched by growth in new forms of employment. The timing and nature of the on-going transition from a traditional to mainstream economy and the willingness to accept this will determine whether humanitarian-scale disaster – population displacement as opposed to opted mobility, and forced abandonment of indigenous culture as opposed to willing cultural change – will occur.

The choice implied here is a political project and not one that Arctic people are blind too. Campaigning and advocacy by vocal indigenous elites has been met part of the way by the democratic processes of Arctic states – the seven Arctic states with indigenous peoples are all democracies, long-standing except in the case of Russia.

This political discourse has delivered some impressive gains towards increasing political empowerment of indigenous peoples. The range and depth of these gains varies as much as the local political environments vary for different indigenous groups. The Inuit majority in Greenland looks to independence from Denmark and have secured significant political autonomy propped up by financial subsidies from Copenhagen. Various models for decentralised self-government or increasing political voice within existing systems have been adopted – for example, the sitting of Saami Parliaments across the Scandinavian Arctic and the establishment of Nunavut as new Canadian territory in 1999. Russia is further behind, with indigenous civil society structures only really developing in the post-communist period to challenge population concentration policies and expropriation of traditional lands for industrial projects. At an international level, the indigenous peoples’ agenda has been strengthened through participation in the Arctic Council and through the establishment of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

In parallel to the political project comes a struggle for recognition of human rights – in this context both individual rights and the more illusive collective rights, such as a right to dispose of natural resources. Article 14 of the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 169 considers land rights of indigenous peoples, but only 20 countries have ratified this and of the Arctic states only Denmark and Norway. Additionally, the Human Rights Committee established Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This creates an obligation on Arctic states to protect the identity of minorities and their traditional ways of life and livelihoods. Finally, although not binding, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples reinforces collective, individual and political rights promoting ‘full and effective participation in all matters that concern them and their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic and social development’

Land ownership as well as mineral, fishing and grazing rights hold a key to the future. Greater progress here would strengthen the hand of indigenous minorities providing real currency to negotiate with governments or with transnational corporations hoping to negotiate mining concerns in lieu of deals for the use of local labour, suppliers contracts, infrastructure and social development programmes. Progress here is also differentiated, Norway, living up to the ILO convention, has created a complicated system to recognise Saami rights to land and water, but this is the exception not the rule.

The writing is on the wall for climate change. Successive failures of the international community to rise above the platitudes of Kyoto and produce a binding low-carbon future is testament to this. The resilience of Arctic peoples is well documented, but can they withstand the seismic change that comes? It is tempting, from a Western perspective, to construct a narrative of victim for Arctic indigenous peoples. The reflex is to then ask what can we do, putting aside good intention, this is ultimately the wrong question. If the future for Arctic people is built on the ashes of traditional culture and livelihoods -a new sedentary, urbanised lifestyle grown on an integrated economy of civil servants, oil tycoons, construction workers or holiday reps – it is for the Arctic people to embrace it, reject it, or re-imagine it.



Lessons from the Wild West – the US’s approach to taming the Arctic

Posted by / 13th November 2013 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , / -

How is the US psyche holding up to the prospects of a new and wild frontier? Climate-change is melting Arctic sea-ice at an astonishing rate. With it, a new frontier is opening with the prospects of rich rewards for those who access untapped reserves of oil, gas, minerals and green-energy or those who control new fishing, tourism, construction and shipping opportunities. To date the US appears to be a reluctant player in a significant economic and geo-political game, sitting on the bench as Russia, China, Canada and even Denmark steal a march on them. In order for the US to remain relevant, they will need to learn the lessons from their own past.

‘Taming’ the West

The entrance to the Harry S. Truman Library in Missouri is adorned by a vivid mural by Thomas Hart Benton depicting Independence and the Opening of the West. It is an interesting piece in as much as it captures an edgy tension at odds with the more pervasive, rose-tinted, national narrative celebrating the struggle of pioneering families against the odds of a harsh environment and a belligerent indigenous population.

History, it is said, is written by its victors. Having vanquished the indigenous people, global powers such as France and England and its regional competitor Mexico, Americans have a tendency to embroider the historic record of their Western expansion. The bitter plight of the indigenous people and the diverse environmental impacts – ranging from the decimation of 15 million buffalo to a similar fate for ancient hardwood forests – are relegated to footnotes in a story of conquest. For settlers themselves, their heroism is advanced over their plight. Just imagine how it felt for the 30,000 Forty-Niners who managed the long trek to reach California in 1849 from the East – leaving behind them a trail of dead compatriots whose bones liberally littered the unforgiving Nevada Desert – only to find that the gold that had enticed them was not much more than dust.

In comparison, the Arctic exchanges heat for cold and dust for ice, but also holds interesting parallels begging lessons to be learned. Of its many riches, the Artic holds 20% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas, and its Boreal forests are home to 8% of global wood reserves. The process of determining power and economic gain in the Arctic will have profound consequences for indigenous people, the environment and the course of global development and governance. In this context, the Arctic offers an uncomfortable truth for the US, unpicking the historical thread, revealing an unresolved past.

Old Cabbage or Cabotage?

Two examples seem to best illustrate the confuddled nature of US Arctic policy and languishing pioneer spirit. First is the question of ice-breakers as a barometer for wider investment in innovative Arctic technologies.

It should be remembered that success in the West was as much the outcome of the pioneering spirit as was the investment and application of new technology. Railways enabled Texan cattlemen to supply markets in the East via Chicago – a city of 30,000 people in 1850 having grown from just 12 families in 1831. Farming of the Great Plains was made possible by deep-water wells, the multi-furrow laying gang plough, specialised harrows, steam threshing machines and mechanical reapers and binders. Mining fortunes were rarely made by the early prospectors. It was big business that benefitted through investment in equipment and technologies for deep mining and efficient refining.

Ice-breakers, not tallies of nuclear warheads or naval fleets, are the means of projecting technological and political power in the Arctic. These highly advanced and hardy ships are more than ice-capable, at a cost of around $1 billion each, they are able to break through and navigate Arctic ice flows that lay waste to other vessels. The maritime annals are full of tales of timber vessels being reduced to kindling as a result of being trapped in ice, so too is the wrecking ball effect of ice on standard steel hulled ships. Their value is in their unrivalled versatility: keeping sea routes open, escorting convoys, coast guarding and military patrolling, rescuing ice-grounded vessels, acting as research platforms or as supply boats servicing polar research stations and Arctic rigs, towing weak or damaged vessels, and even iceberg ‘herding’.

The High Latitude Study presented to Congress by the US Coast Guard suggests that to fulfil its statutory missions it requires six icebreakers, but to deliver the continuous presence requirements of the Naval Operations Concept requires ten icebreakers. Currently the US has, almost, three. Of its two heavy ships, the Polar Star and the Polar Sea, both have surpassed their 30-year service lives. Polar Sea is now mothballed and Polar Ice has had its life extended to coincide with the delivery of a new ship planned for around 2023. The third US ice-breaker, Healy, is medium sized which limits it to, primarily, research.

There are three dilemmas for the US in trying to resolve this. First is timing. If the US ramped up their shipbuilding programme, given the ten year lead time, much of the ice will have disappeared by the time they are ready to break it.

Second is cost. During boom times the US chose not to invest in its 5th Ocean capabilities. At the time climate change sceptics had a stronger voice and the scientific community’s projections, when listened to, anticipated a slower rate of Arctic change. Now, in the time of austerity, getting ahead in the Arctic is all about the Benjamins, as U.S. Navy Commander Blake McBride suggests: “If you don’t have the budget or funds to invest in manpower and equipment then you don’t have anything.”

Third is US shipbuilding capacity. Even if the US had the appetite and the budget, the final hurdle to jump is the Merchant Marine Act, also known as the Jones Act or Cabotage Law. Protectionist in its purpose, it requires vessels transporting cargo or passengers between US ports to be built in the US and to be owned and crewed by US citizens. Coined the ‘maritime boondoggle’ on debut in 1970 (New York Times) the Act has failed to secure a significant US owned merchant fleet that could be commandeered in a time of national need – over 97% of cargo ships using US ports carry foreign flags. Not surprisingly therefore, US naval shipbuilding capacity is lacklustre, and the pipeline for building new icebreakers, without the option of sourcing elsewhere, is excessively long, not to mention costly.

Russia and China, meanwhile, are far less constrained and with far more of a pioneering spirit, producing ice-breakers like Dime bars. China recently unveiled the Xuě Lóng (Ice Dragon) and Russia has three new heavy nuclear vessels on order for 2017-2020.

To Ratify or not to Ratify?

A second illustration of confuddled US Arctic policy and weakening pioneering resolve concerns the question of territorial rights and whether the US should give primacy to the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas.

Stretching back to the early 17th Century a nation’s rights to seabed minerals were restricted by doctrine to a narrow strip of water tracking the national shoreline. This remained the case until 1945 when the US, under Harry S Truman, announced that it was to assume jurisdiction of all natural resources to the edge of its continental shelf. The US’s move was quickly followed by several other states eager to exploit marine resources. Tension rose quickly over fishing and mineral rights, pollution and competing claims. To deal with this, 150 countries came together over 14 years, with the aid of US leadership, to draft the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, completing in 1982.

In 2013, the landlocked, desert state Niger was the 166th country to ratify the treaty, but the US with its extensive coastline has still not. As a signatory, the US would have final and binding rights over areas of their continental shelf extending up to a maximum of 350 nautical miles from shore. The convention conveys rights that would provide a more secure basis than resting on the vagaries of customary law. For the US, signing up would mean jurisdiction over around 4 million additional square miles of Ocean –a sizeable portion of this in Arctic waters.

Reagan was the first to hold out on signing up – wanting a better deep-mining settlement that was achieved some time later. Subsequent Presidents have put their weight behind the treaty from Bush junior to Obama, but a minority Republican voice in the Senate has used the tools of filibustering to scupper successive legislative attempts.

These decades of delay provide interesting contrast with the acquisitive approach to land assembly demonstrated by the Founding Fathers. Where would the West be without the Louisiana Purchase that saw Napoleon sell French holdings. War with Mexico liberated vast tracks of land including Texas, California and much of the South West.

For those few but belligerent Republicans bent on abrogating the convention, their arguments boil down to an ideological resistance – not wishing to cede power to transnational bodies. Arguments that suggest that accession is not in the national interests have been dismissed by a wide range of defence planners. Admiral Roughhead, for example, specifically states the Arctic will ‘expose the costs of our national reluctance on the Law of the Sea convention and to test our present understanding of customary legal guarantees to the very freedoms behind our global operations today.’

Second term in office, post-Obamacare and buoyed by Republican meltdown over the fiscal cliff debacle, is this the time for the administration to act again on ratification? If it is not, what does this tell us about American hegemony and the health of the nation’s pioneering spirit? The triple Arctic aims of protecting the environment, upholding indigenous rights whilst ensuring wider economic security is fraught with difficulties. It requires strong political leadership that is prepared to grab the bull by the longhorns, or else, other stronger minded pioneers will get on with the job themselves.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Catching a Cold: Europe’s Exposure to Arctic Change

Posted by / 6th November 2013 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , / -

Europe’s tendency toward policy dominated by concerns for the environment in the Arctic risks the perverse outcome of the Arctic being laid waste to unfettered global demand for new sources of commodity extraction. The boat to the Arctic has already sailed. Rapidly melting sea-ice driven by accelerated climate change means that the Arctic sea routes will shortly see ice-free summers, opening opportunities for transcontinental and local shipping, as well as resource extraction from the Arctic’s rich wealth in oil, gas, minerals, green-energy and fish. Europe’s policy inertia means it has caught a cold – too sick to capitalise on the opportunities of change nor able to protect against its more destructive tendencies.

If Europeans want environmental outcomes high on the Arctic agenda, as they have done to date, the best way to achieve this is by not assuming anyone is listening, nor by banging on the table to make people listen. If it is to have any traction, the European approach needs a degree of sophistication built around EU competencies and capacities. It requires a level of honesty regarding its economic and security interests whilst being more cognisant of its constrained powerbase. Here, China offers Europe some lessons. After a period of testing the temperature, China clearly found the Arctic too cold for confrontational politics. Instead China has geared up on the economic front, opening substantial lines of investment via Greenland, Iceland, and Russia that give it a direct stake in exploration and extraction. It has shored up diplomatic ties with emerging Arctic powers, in particular Iceland whilst having gained observer status at the Arctic Council. Finally, it is investing heavily in Arctic research, partly driven by its own domestic environmental concerns, but also to build credibility with the Arctic community.

Europe’s interests and influence in the Arctic are a little complicated. First off, of the European Union member states only Denmark, by virtue of succession seeking, EU adverse Greenland, is one of the five Arctic Coastal States (US, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark). However the wider definition of  Arctic Countries – that comprise the permanent members of the Arctic Council – swells European interests through the inclusion of Sweden and Finland (US, Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Finland).

The Arctic Council – although its early interests were rooted in collaborative research and knowledge sharing – is now seen increasingly as the legitimate international forum for considering wider Arctic issues and has recently secured its first internationally binding agreement for search and rescue. A proposal for the Arctic Council to discuss issues of security was vetoed by the US, but with increasing legitimacy and representation the agenda may still widen. Asides from the 3 European permanent members of the Arctic Council, the UK, Spain, Poland, the Netherlands, Germany, France and most recently Italy have observer status. Europe’s own bid for observer status, unlike China’s was rejected at the last session. Led by Canada, the EU’s protest on seal culling by indigenous people was cited as the reason, but also reflects a broader concern in some quarters of diluting Council decision making and increasing bureaucracy, an undervaluing of the rights and interests of indigenous people, and perhaps a sense that EU interests were marginal to the Arctic debate particularly given bilateral representation of European states.

Europe’s first big foray into melt-conscious Arctic politics started in 2006. At this time Arctic expertise in the assembly was thin, allowing a small group with Arctic interests or expertise to have a big impact on policy direction. Led by Diana Wallis, a European from Yorkshire, the group floated the idea of an Arctic Treaty for its protection, in part modelled on the Antarctic Treaty, albeit that the Antarctic itself does not impinge on sovereign territory. Wallis’ was not a moderate voice, far from it, steering a proposal for a shakeup in Arctic governance. In a controversial move, having no support from any of the five Arctic states, it was proposed that the EU should have a role in the management of the Arctic. The Norwegians took it upon themselves to steer the EU away from a course of conflict that would have resulted in greater marginalisation of EU in Arctic affairs. In November 2008, flanked by the Norwegian Prime Minister, the EU Commission President, humiliated in retreat, issued a joint statement that ‘as a matter of principle, we can say that the Arctic is a sea, and a sea is a sea’. In essence, supporting sovereign claims and therefore primacy under the auspices of the Law of the Seas. With that, any remaining hope for a treaty was dead and buried.

This difficult lesson at least means the EU has graduated class 101. With hindsight the European Commission now states:

As a matter of fact, the similarities between the two poles are scarce: while the Arctic is mainly an ocean the Antarctic is a continent. The Arctic has been populated by humans for millennia, while Antarctica is the largest uninhabited area in the world.

Following the demise of the Arctic Treaty in 2008, the EU has switched tracks, focussing anew on developing a less strident Arctic policy, but still grounded in environment outcomes. Since that time, at glacial speed, the organs of Europe, including the new EU Arctic Forum, have issued a suite of policy-like documents – none of them policies per se and most of them talking to future policy yet to be developed. Their overarching themes have, not unpredictably, been to protect and preserve the Arctic in unison with its population; to promote the sustainable use of resources; and international cooperation.

Five years on, cold shouldered by the Arctic Council and with the melt seemingly in overdrive, the EU is starting to see its policy objectives have failed. In 2012, the generally glossy progress report made to the European Parliament had one exception, a tale telling sentence that reveals a bigger truth and the hint of a change in direction:

However, given the evident speed of change in the Arctic, the time is now ripe to refine the EU’s policy stance towards the region, take a broader approach, and link it with the Europe 2020 Agenda for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth while continuing to support every effort to ensure the effective stewardship of the fragile Arctic environment.

Indeed, a speech issued by European Union on Arctic Strategy in April this year goes somewhat further, with the announcement of focusing policy on three components:

1. Knowledge – establishing closer links with researchers from third countries.
2. Responsibility – working with Arctic partners and with the private sector to develop environmentally-friendly, low-risk technologies that could be used by the extractive industries and the shipping industry.
3. Engagement – stepping up dialogue with Arctic states and stakeholders.

This smacks more of pragmatism and should be applauded. But, of course, the devil is in the detail and, in the case of the EU, the time it takes to develop it. Certainly, Europe is not in a position to match Chinese economic and scientific investment in the region. Rather, Europe needs to identify its own policy devices that balance economic gain with collective stewardship over the environment. Arctic opportunities are specific and many for which European companies are well place to respond. Research remains an obvious area of strength, but Europe should also be leveraging industrial investment in innovative green technologies that can support economically viable and environmentally sensitive Arctic resource extraction. Consideration of the EU’s role in promoting safe, serviced Arctic shipping, improving Arctic communications, supply-logistics and weather forecasting. Promoting European businesses with competitive advantages such as marine insurance and high value engineering. Supporting and investing in northern European ports so that they remain competitive and responsive to rapidly increasing throughput. Providing technical assistance and funding to support indigenous population dislocated by environmental change. Continuing to lobby for environment protection and conservation resulting from Arctic climate change as well as for new risks such as industrial pollution and accidents. To achieve these, there is a need for a pragmatic EU Arctic policy, forged with the right content and strategic balance, not simply a lament for conservation.

The interminable policy drag is a product of failed leadership in a bloated transnational system that is increasingly concerned most with self-conservation and least with the social and economic interests of its people and beyond. The failure in the Arctic is a microcosm a wider malaise, mediocrity and EU inertia. Now that we have caught a cold, there is no cure in sight.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Economics and the Environment: A Brief Review of Arctic Change

Posted by / 2nd November 2013 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , , , / -

This morning, two news stories filled me with a fleeting sense of hope. Firstly, a remote Arctic Island, known as ‘Rat Island’ due to a mass infestation of Norwegian rats, is finally rodent free. Conservationists have been working tirelessly to exterminate the invasive population for the benefit of the indigenous inhabitants of nesting birds including puffins. Secondly, after their sojourn from storming Arctic oil-rigs, Greenpeace activists and accompanying journalists have had piracy charges downgraded to hooliganism by Russian authorities. What are the wider prospects though for the Arctic heritage to remain unchanged?

In popular European imagination the Arctic looms large as a pristine inaccessible wilderness, a cold inhospitable land of polar bears, fit only for our most intrepid explorers and scientists. From this starting point European sensitivities rail against the huge potential of the Arctic as a source of primary commodities to fuel economic growth. Europe’s is a tendency toward Arctic conservationism and a fanciful hope, like that of China’s too, that the Arctic should be considered, in a non-legal sense, a global Common. This imagery will be increasingly that – a figment of the imagination. We are witnessing an astonishing pace of ecological, economic and political transformation of the Arctic driven by climate change. The Arctic we know and love is moving to the mythological annals of history.

Change is coming apace. Already the annual average temperature for the Arctic region is about 1 ºC warmer than the recorded average between 1961 to 1990 and as much as 5 ºC above the seasonal norm for October-November. As the arctic warms, the scientists’ Arctic sea-ice dial is being constantly ratcheted down from rock-hard towards almost-slushy. In three decades Arctic sea ice covers now only half of its previous expanse. Estimates of an ice-free summer ocean by 2030 are now looking a little conservative with the latest data suggesting a decade earlier is plausible, in part explained by polar amplification and spurred along by black carbon deposits.

Polar bears and walruses are particularly dependent on thick sea ice. The polar bear is now listed as an endangered species and walruses as candidate species for listing. Decline in the population of several sub-species of seal follow hot on their heels. Moreover, subarctic flora and fauna, both terrestrial and marine, are migrating northward to compete with indigenous species that cannot rely on evolutionary responses to keep pace with the rate of change. Habitats are changing: coastlines are eroding and as the permafrost reduces, frozen tundra is reverting to swampland last seen some 50 million years ago. Arctic cyclones are growing in size and strength with local impact, but also being held responsible for catastrophic weather events across the hemisphere: flooding in China, heat waves and fires in Russia, severe winters in the US and Europe and summer monsoons and droughts in India.

Change does not end there. The changing climate opens the areas to economic exploitation on a grand scale – a new centre of trade and industry with a form not unlike that of the Mediterranean. It is not entirely fanciful to suggest that the opening up of the Arctic frontier will deliver the sorts of radical shifts in global trade and geo-political strategy that come only once in a life-time. Paralleling the Age of Discovery or the US’s taming of the west as an engine of its meteoric rise to global super power status. In economic and political terms there is a lot to play for, but as with great games there is also real risk, among them irreparable environmental damage, militarisation, and dislocation of indigenous people and their livelihoods.

Alaska and western Siberia already account for around 10% of global oil and gas production, the region’s production share is set to rocket. The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds 22% of the worlds undiscovered oil and gas, not to mention rich deposits of rare minerals and isotopes. Retreating ice; new exploration and extraction technologies; and transport access by sea make discovery and extraction real and increasing possibilities. It does not end here, the potential for hydro- and geothermal power, construction and fishing (as stocks head for warmer arctic waters) all add to a very long list of economic opportunities that spin out and will spur on the changing face of the Arctic. Just imagine the tourism opportunities: paired sailings of cruise ships witnessing the dramatic sight of vast walls of melting ice crashing into the ocean and strings of wilderness junkies trudging over pristine Icelandic glaciers in designer snow boots.

The question of sea access – the opening of the fifth ocean – of itself is of massive economic and naval significance. Reducing sea-ice coupled with supporting maritime technology and logistical support will lead to the opening up of new sea routes crossing the Arctic. The passage becoming accessible most rapidly is the Northern Sea Route (Russia’s preferred name for the North-East Passage) skirting the Russian coast. The North-West Passage, following the Canadian archipelago, lags behind, but remains a realistic possibility. In 2012, 46 vessels managed to cross the Northern Sea Route (NSR), and most recently, the Yong Seng, a Chinese commercial vessel followed the NSR, arriving in Rotterdam amid much media fanfare. The excitement was generated by the news that the voyage had trimmed 14 days off the usual time required for the route south via Suez. Estimates place financial savings per commercial vessel per voyage are in the region of $600,000.

In the long term, the reorientation of shipping from China via the NSR to supply the major markets of Europe bodes well for both economies in broad terms, with the prospects of cheaper products arriving more quickly. However there are winners and losers. Hong Kong marks the equidistance point between the southern and northern routes. As such the future of seaports North and South of this point look very different. Singapore, for example, may lose out to new ports developing along the Chinese coastline and in Japan. Likewise northern European ports such as Rotterdam and Felixstowe may benefit.

Politics and questions of infrastructure supporting shipping are also critical. Russian cooperation, ice-breakers to rescue beached ships, maritime policing, supply and repair stops are all part of the viability jigsaw. Also, there remain challenges to Canada and Russia’s sovereignty over the two sea routes. Much to their annoyance, the US and EU in particular continue to argue that the routes should be considered as international Strait. China too, in its references to global commons and the occasional broadside from an ex-sea admiral, may well hold this view, but prefers to supress it given a more fundamental respect for sovereign rights.

The assimilated view of seasoned political commentators seems to be shifting in regards to the Arctic. Whereas the trend a couple of years back was to stress the dystopian prospects of the Arctic thaw – a terrain poised to escalate geopolitical conflict – the pendulum, with some reasoned argument, swings now in favour of backing the prospect of a new Arctic consensus. This revised view is derived from a growing tendency for Arctic states to find agreement on some of their long-standing, sometimes pernicious, territorial disputes. Realising there is good sense in rising above the narrowest state-interests, there may be a move to avoiding escalating conflict and to work collectively to exploit the rich opportunities offered in the Arctic.

These difficulties and differences aside, surely this is good news for Europe, but the question is what is Europe’s response in making hay while the sun shines and how does this articulate with European environmental and conservation aims? The question of European policy, flavoured by our well-heeled and well-intentioned Arctic imaginary is important. It has coloured the EU policy approach without winning many friends. For those states or transnational bodies sitting outside of the Arctic inner circle lessons are being learnt, more rapidly in the case of China than Europe, about not rocking the boat if you want to get in on the action. To date Europe has been perceived as an angry child rather than a critical friend, with the dual impact of removing us from the economic and environmental spheres of influence. Europe needs more sophistication in defining its Arctic interests and related policy, if it wants to move from the imaginary to the pragmatic.

Returning to Rat Island puffins, the question arises as what is their long-term hardiness in the face of new waves of change arriving on their shores? As for Greenpeace, notwithstanding the vagaries of the Russian judicial process, jurisprudence suggests that piracy charges are subject to international law – the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas – and that there seemed little hope of a successful prosecution on these terms. Russia no doubt realised this, although appearing to have backed down, they have in truth managed to send a clear warning to transgressors as to the primacy of Russian economic interests in the Arctic region. Perhaps then we need to set sail on a new course for the European eco-warrior, hell bent on achieving the best and most pragmatic environmental outcomes for the Artic, by turning attention on EU reform. We need to look at our own institutions rather fighting Russian or Chinese ghosts. Batten down the hatches Greenpeace, were setting sail for Brussels!  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail