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Thawed Arctic Could be a Sea of Cooperation, Iceland Minister Says

Opening the Seventh International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences, in Akureyri, Iceland, this week, Iceland’s Minister for the Environment, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, called for cooperation among nations sharing the polar region. “Instead of being a frozen barrier, the Arctic Ocean could become a new Mediterranean Sea at the top of the world,” she told hundreds of social scientists from 30 countries.

The delegates were gathered to discuss a wide range of issues affecting the top of the world in times of sweeping climate and social change. The conference was organized by the International Arctic Social Sciences Association.

Here is an edited version of Svandís Svavarsdóttir’s remarks:

By Svandís Svavarsdóttir,
Minister for the Environment, Iceland

Akureyri, Iceland–It is my pleasure and an honour to welcome you here in Akureyri, which we Icelanders often refer to as “the capital of the North”. By this we mean that Akureyri is the biggest town and a centre of services in the northern part of Iceland, but in recent years this old title has taken on a new meaning.

Here in Akureyri a cluster of Arctic knowledge and institutions has formed, which makes Akureyri a magnet for those working on issues of the High North. The Stefansson Arctic Institute is a government agency to strengthen Iceland’s research efforts and participation in international scientific cooperation in Arctic issues. Secretaries of two Arctic Council working groups are located here, on the conservation of flora and fauna, and on the protection of the marine environment. The University of Akureyri offers a degree in Polar Law and is affiliated with the University of Arctic. These bodies cooperate and support each other and help cement Akureyri’s role as a northern centre.

This conference is a milestone in this regard; it is to the best of my knowledge the biggest scientific conference that has been held in Akureyri. We have participants from some 30 countries with a wide range of expertise. We are thrilled to have the ICASS conference here in Iceland and here in Akureyri, and hope that our capital of the North will be a suitable frame for your ambitious agenda and work. We have even tried to keep the summer temperatures here at a range that will remind you of your geographical scope – and help you to keep a cool head for clear thinking.

The Arctic has always fascinated the outside world as a forbidding white wilderness, a place of epic loneliness, endless nights and heroic adventures of frostbitten explorers. Lately, it has caught the fancy of politicians and the media, as a warming climate makes access to sea lanes and natural resources easier. A race to exploit these potential riches is going on – a modern-day Yukon gold rush. The empty quarter at the top of the world is becoming a geopolitical game board. Or something along these lines, as the story is often presented in the media.

Except the Arctic is not empty. There is a different way to look at the Arctic region – as home. The Arctic is not only spectacular wilderness, but a region where some 2 million people live, or even more, depending on where you draw to the boundaries of the Arctic world. Some inhabitants have been indigenous to the region for millenia, developing unique cultures and a way of life in harmony with the natural riches and challenges of the North. Others have arrived more recently. Contact between the peoples of the Arctic has until recently been minimal, lines of communication have usually been to the south, not to fellow Northerners.

The people, societies, economies and cultures of the Arctic and sub-Arctic region is the subject of study for members of IASSA. It is in many ways a pioneering work, as we have a shortage of comparative data for Arctic and sub-Arctic societies, and a relatively short history of academic cooperation and joint studies. Iceland is proud to have contributed to Arctic social science inter alia through the development of the Arctic Human Development Report. This work was led by the Stefansson Arctic Institute during Iceland’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council 2002-2004. Iceland considers it important that the human dimension is well represented at the Arctic Council. The input of social sciences is highly relevant at the Council – through the development of social and economic indicators, through the updating of the Arctic Human Development Report and through the integration of the social dimension in all its work. Iceland will continue to emphasize the social dimension in the Arctic Council and in its approach to Arctic issues.

The Arctic is undergoing fundamental changes now – political, social and economical. The most profound change may be in the environment, which will affect the entire Arctic ecosystem and all its communities. Climate change is more visible and more acute in the Arctic than in most regions of the world. Sea ice is retreating, glaciers are melting, permafrost is thawing, species are migrating. This change will not only affect the Arctic, but the world. Increased melting of the Greenland ice cap is serious news for people in Bangladesh and Pacific islands. Never before has the world looked so much to the Arctic in search for answers on issues that concern all humankind.

If we do not manage to curb emissions of greenhouse gases we could be looking at an ice-free Arctic Ocean before the end of this century. Instead of being a frozen barrier, the Arctic Ocean could become a new Mediterranean Sea at the top of the world. But the cost of such scenario would be tremendous.

Unchallenged climate change will cause an upheaval in the Arctic and spell a disaster to the world. But we do not need sea ice and glaciers to disappear to remove barriers in cooperation between people in the circumpolar region. We will see rapid change in Arctic societies in the coming years, just like in the environment. We are already seeing this change, an increase in drilling for oil and gas, in shipping, in tourism and so on. All this calls for greater cooperation, with the aim to ensure sustainable development of the Arctic. We need better knowledge, we need to study best practices, we need to learn from each other. We need forums for cooperation such as IASSA, we need conferences such as this one. We can turn the Arctic into a Mediterranean of close cooperation, without doing so in the physical sense.

I have looked at your agenda and I am impressed by the scope of your work and the wide range of studies to be discussed here. I wish you good luck in your work here at this conference and in the future. We who work in policy-making will be looking to you for knowledge, data, ideas and guidance.

Vilhjálmur Stefánsson, the Icelandic-Canadian explorer whom the Stefansson institute is named after, coined the term “the friendly North”; which was contrary to all widely-held ideas of the Arctic in his days. What he meant was that if you know the region as well as the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, it becomes a place where one can not only survive, but live a good life. Nature stops becoming a cold-hearted foe, as it seemed to many early explorers, but starts being a friend and a provider of people’s physical and spiritual needs. All you need is some cool-headed knowledge about the perils and gifts of Mother Nature, and a wisdom in your heart on how to live in harmony with her many moods. This is the work of science and politics and culture, all together.