Arctic White Gold: Hitting those at the Forefront of Climate Change Hardest

This week's Article of the Week by Mr. Matthew Cousens, explores how the arctic wilderness is being exploited to the detriment of those who depend on it to survive.

The Arctic is an ‘untouched wilderness’, or so it was once described by the Norwegian Government. Now activities taking place hundreds, if not thousands of miles away, are leaving an indelible mark on this frozen paradise. Climate change is hitting the Arctic first, and hardest.

But can the actions taken by Norway’s Government to protect their land in the Arctic be a sign of hope? Hope not only for the preservation of unspoilt territories but also for indigenous peoples across the world, indigenous peoples whose livelihoods are being jeopardised by climate change and the rush to exploit the riches of their lands?

An ‘untouched’ wilderness

Despite the superficial harshness of its frozen tundra, the Norwegian Government have recognised, in State policy, that its inherent fragility makes it ‘very vulnerable’, and that even ‘minor disturbances’ can cause ‘lasting damage.’

This ‘lasting damage’ is already visible. Arctic ice is melting at such a rate that many fear it will have disappeared by the end of the millennium. This is a direct result of temperatures in the Arctic that have risen twice as fast over the last few decades compared to anywhere else in the world.

Distressingly, the conclusion of State of Environment Norway is that the ‘Arctic is no longer an untouched wilderness.’

It is true that the ‘speed and consequences’ of climate change may not yet be fully understood but as the former Foreign Affairs Minister for Norway, Jan Petersen acknowledged:

‘…we must be prepared for the fact that climate change and natural resource management in the Arctic will have an increasing impact on the entire planet.’

There are no easy answers to this complex yet immediate problem. Ultimately, protection will only be achievable through international cooperation, with the Arctic ‘affected by human activities in distant parts of the world.’ However local solutions are still required.

A global issue – a local crisis

Viewing this issue as a global concern ignores the effect it has on those dependent on onmn fragile ecosystems for their livelihood. The situation has been described as a ‘crisis’ by Bill Erasmus, representative of the Arctic Athabaskan Council in Canada. The quiet anger of his words magnifies the indifference displayed by governments across the world to those already experiencing the effects of climate change:

‘The permafrost is melting, homes are destroyed, rivers are rising, lakes are disappearing, migratory patterns are changing, seasons are not the same anymore. Reindeer herders face the loss of herds, hunters face starvation, trappers are dying because they cannot read ice conditions anymore. People are losing their homes and their lives. Entire communities of Indigenous Peoples are at risk across the Arctic. I think using the word ‘crisis’ is appropriate.’

To avoid these catastrophic consequences, representatives of indigenous people from across the Arctic have asked that governments work with them to affect real change. The Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples Secretariat is just one organisation calling for cooperation, requesting to work with the eight states represented in the Arctic Council.

Whilst speaking on behalf of the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the Saami, Patricia Cochran acknowledged it is vital that indigenous peoples are called upon when discussing matters of climate change as they are, invariably, those first affected:

‘It is clear that in future… the plight of Indigenous Peoples will not be addressed if they are not at the table and not involved in the decision-making. We call upon the United Nations to open the door to indigenous peoples in all matters affecting climate change.’

The beginning and end of climate change

Climate change is a critical issue, but not the only one facing this last wilderness. Ironically the raw materials cited as responsible for climate change can be found in abundance in the Arctic. Rising temperature has seen unprecedented ice melting in the summer - making petroleum (and uranium) more accessible.

The battle for the protection of the Arctic is on two fronts now: the need to combat climate change whilst preventing the misuse of resources by those desperate to exploit them.

There is an estimated 1.67 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 44 billion barrels of liquid gas and 90 billion barrels of oil available north of the Arctic Circle. In contrast, at the beginning of 2008, Iraq had 115 billion barrels of proven reserves according to the US Department of Energy. If these are extracted it will ultimately damage the rich environment in which they are found.

Their importance was recognized over thirty years ago when Inuit leader, and founder of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Eben Hopson stated:

‘The politics of the Arctic are no longer the politics of the people, but they are the politics of oil.’

Norway is at the centre of this battle. It is currently the world’s third-biggest oil producer and responsible for Svalbard, a 61,000 km2 area of the Arctic still considered untouched.

Although like the rest of the Arctic its flora and fauna have adapted to the harsh conditions, its ecosystem is still very fragile – with the smallest disruption liable to cause lasting and irreversible damage.

Protecting an untouched wilderness

The beauty of Svalbard reflects its unique environment. At around twice the size of Belgium it is considered one of the last remaining areas of wilderness in Europe. The Norwegian Government has recognized this and argue that they, the Norwegian Government, play a key role in ‘efforts to safeguard these areas for future generations.’

Jan Petersen acknowledged what many other governments would do well to follow:

‘What we do today in these territories will affect them for years and years to come. The tasks we face are immense, and so are the consequences if we fail to carry them out. We all have an obligation to work together in order to manage Arctic resources in a sustainable way that will benefit present and future generations.’

He also recognised that governance of the ‘Arctic has an impact on global environmental challenges, global resource management and world-wide security, an impact that will only increase with time.’

Without world wide assistance, Norway is unable to safeguard Svalbard’s fragile ecosystem against global pollution. But it leads the way in demonstrating that domestic measures can be adopted to help protect against immediate threats to the existence of this wilderness.

A series of policies and legislation passed by the Norwegian Government such as the Svalbard Environmental Act aimed to ‘preserve a virtually untouched environment in Svalbard.’ This Act ensures that the natural environment and cultural heritage is at the centre of any decisions regarding new activity.

Under the act, the cost of preventing or limiting damage to the environment is covered by those responsible. It is hoped that such a strong deterrent will ‘maintain areas of special conservation or historical value’ and ‘protect ecosystems on land and in the sea.’

Due to these regulations around 65 percent of Svalbard land and 84 percent of its territorial waters are currently protected. The Norwegian Government hope this will ensure ‘that future generations will have the same opportunities to enjoy this unspoilt wilderness as we have’.

By doing this Norway is helping to make Svalbard ‘one of the best-managed wilderness areas in the world.’

Troubled waters in a vulnerable ocean

However concern regarding the Arctic environment is still growing. Both tourism and the exploitation of natural resources are increasing. This has led to the Norwegian Government to call for even higher environmental standards, especially in extracting and processing oil and gas.

Sadly Norway’s achievements could easily be undone now oil is a concern. Even Jan Peterson acknowledged that there is an increasing need for the Arctic’s ‘rich resources.’ He recognized that these should not be exploited at the expense of the fragile habitat. However there are currently heated debates within Norway, and internationally about expanding oil exploration within their territories.

As recently as January 2009 World Wildlife Fund, conservationists and Norwegian communities called for a ban on ‘oil exploration and development from parts of their Arctic coast’. They argue that ‘oil returns would be less than those provided in the long term through the protection and sustainable exploitation of resources.’

Baard Lahn, leader of Norway’s Nature and Youth environmental group has criticised oil exploration in the Arctic authorised by the Norwegian Government in 2006:

‘It can never be responsible environmental policy to allow drilling in a vulnerable ocean area.’

Despite this Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg viewed the agreement to increase oil exploration as a ‘breakthrough,’ again ignoring local concerns.

An unavoidable conclusion is that taken by Michael Baffrey in the Arctic Oil and Gas Assessment:

‘When local organizations and institutions lack power, local interests are likely to be neglected, so that costs are borne disproportionately by local residents while benefits accrue primarily at the regional and national levels.’

This is the sad fact facing many indigenous peoples whose livelihoods are being placed at risk because of climate change and the exploitation of the raw materials discovered on their rich lands. Only through global cooperation that involves local consultation can we hope to protect fragile environments such as the Arctic in these turbulent times.

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