Arctic Change and Policy Implications


A Keynote Address

By Ambassador Gunnar Pálsson

Director of the Department

of Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs

Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Iceland


The Second International Conference on Arctic Research Planning


 Copenhagen, 10 November 2005


Allow me to thank the organizers of the Second International Conference on Arctic Research Planning (ICARP II) for inviting me to address this distinguished forum.

For someone who spent two years in the hot seat that Ambassador Churkin now occupies with such gusto and flair, this is, indeed, a welcome opportunity.  The Arctic, one of earth´s very last frontiers, is opening up a fascinating foreign policy dimension. The more we understand of the region, the better we appreciate the intricate links of the Arctic to the rest of the world. If only for this reason, the importance of the task that the international Arctic research community has set itself at this conference is difficult to overestimate. 

Changes in the Arctic

Change has swept the Arctic in recent years. Regarded by many as an outback theatre of military confrontation during the Cold War, it has gradually been transformed into a zone of innovation and cooperation. The Arctic, as is now widely recognized, is home to some of the world´s richest resources, including hydrocarbons, minerals, precious metals and commercial fisheries. As international relations have thawed, we have also been made aware that the Arctic is defrosting in a literal sense, unlocking assets and opening circumpolar sea routes.   

Looked at in this way, the Arctic offers new and intriguing prospects for the future. But there are perils, as well as possibilities. Permafrost degradation, infrastructure damage, floods, coastal erosion, UV radiation and transboundary pollution are only some of the phenomena that remind us of the sensitive nature of the Arctic environment.  Despite its growing salience, the Arctic remains the least understood of the world´s major ecological zones. We know more about the topography of Venus and Mars than the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.

…..and how to address them

To make informed decisions about the way we tap the riches of the Arctic, we must strive to understand and explain the changes that are affecting the natural conditions of the region. For this we need a knowledge-based approach; an input from a number of disciplines, each of which has a method of its own. But we must also be able to synthesize what we have learned, through integrative approaches, be they an ecosystem or an earth system approach. Last, but not least, major findings must be made intelligible in layman´s terms and communicated in a way that makes them relevant and accessible to the policy-maker.

Fortunately, we are not starting from scratch, as basic elements of such a comprehensive design are already in place. A number of scientific studies and assessments have deepened our understanding of the Arctic region in recent years. Pathbreaking studies in the areas of pollution and biodiversity have been published by the Arctic Council´s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) and the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) working groups. Another working group, dealing with the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME), has produced an Arctic Marine Strategic Plan (AMSP). We have a first Arctic Human Development Report (AHDR), the most comprehensive study of human conditions in the Arctic to date. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), commissioned by the Arctic Council and IASC, is the most thorough regional study of climate change to follow the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Many more non-governmental projects have been launched by IASC.

One common feature that all these projects reveal is that the Arctic, far from being an isolated part of our planet, is globalized through and through, at least in the biophysical sense. Contaminants found in the Arctic, including mercury and persistent organic substances, have thus been found to derive mainly from sources outside the region, as far as Southeast Asia, while the Arctic has been shown to perform vital ecosystem services in the world´s climatic and hydrological processes.

There is another aspect that science in the Arctic has brought home to us. Many of the changes observed in our natural environment are influencing the lives and the livelihoods of the people of the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. Pressures are building as a result of long-range pollution, climate change and economic activity, including shipping and hydrocarbon utilization. Human activity obviously impacts the environment, just as changes in the environment affect people and their conditions of life. A balanced approach that fully ensures the harmonious interaction of man and environment is what is commonly referred to as sustainable development. Seen in this perspective, it is encouraging that the research planning undertaken in the context of this conference also takes due account of the human dimension.

The science-policy interface

If nature and society form a complex system of interaction in the North, it follows that Arctic change has policy implications. We want not only to understand the Arctic, but to use our knowledge to make a difference in peoples´ lives, to help them cope and to adapt to the changes affecting the North.

In a world of science, a world organized on the principle of rational objectivity, we would presumably set out to identify problems, analyze them and address with fitting solutions. In the real world, as we know, things are rarely that simple. There is, to begin with, no canonical, let alone a universally accepted method for all of science. Scientists, for better or for worse, have to share the stage with people who may not be as rationally inclined. Nevertheless, as we turn out attention to the Arctic, useful distinctions can be made between different stages of the science-policy interface. I will dwell on three examples:


One of the clearest instances of a comparatively straightforward crossing of the science-policy gap comes from the work done within the Arctic Council on pollution. The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) is responsible for identifying and assessing the sources of pollution in the circumpolar region. As a direct follow-up of the work of AMAP, the Arctic Council Action Plan (ACAP) then addresses the sources of pollution identified by AMAP, involving several priority projects to reduce pollution in the Arctic, including projects on cleaner production and control of PCBs, obsolete pesticides and dioxins, all of which are priority pollutants under the Stockholm Convention. Although such projects can give rise to delicate issues of public policy, they have rarely been subject to controversy and showcase some of the most concrete and effective action taken by the Arctic Council member states.

Climate change

As we move on to a different example, climate change, the plot begins to thicken.  

  The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) is, without a doubt, the most influential contribution to be made to Arctic studies in the recent past. It has brought new vigour to the global climate change debate and stimulated wide interest in the Arctic. Given its wide compass, it is not altogether surprising that the ACIA has emerged as an unofficial, overarching task-master, as Arctic research planning has extended more and more to the impacts of climate change.

It is precisely because the ACIA has come to be regarded as such an authoritative study of Arctic climate change that we need to have an accurate view of what it seeks to accomplish. It documents and describes how climate change is affecting the North. Furthermore, it includes long-range projections of future developments based on a selection and synthesis of complex scientific models and makes the case that the sources of climate change are to a large extent anthropomorphic.

But contrary to what many people think, the ACIA is not an elaborate weather forecast. It does not “predict” the future. Neither does the science report itself, through some seamless, linear process of reasoning, lead to unequivocal policy conclusions as to what should be done to abate climate change. 

Unfortunately, these fine distinctions are not always observed in the public domain. Most people (including myself, I should admit) have neither the time nor the inclination to delve deeply into theories and evidence, let alone to read through the tome of the ACIA science report itself. As a consequence, facts concerning climate change are often obscured, taken out of context or replaced by unqualified or prophetic generalizations, portending gloom and doom for the residents of the Arctic, if not the world as a whole. Normally, this would not be a problem, except that political activists have frequently sought to make orthodoxy of such generalizations and used them to fan their own desires for far-reaching reforms of our way of life in the West. 

But as we all know from bitter lessons of history, the mixture of science and politics needs to be handled with care. Observation and evaluation tend to be a complex process. While the majority of views may be marshaled on the one side of a scientific argument, views also differ. Even if they agreed on the sources of climate change, scientists might still disagree on what should be done about them or at what cost. There are questions of fairness and equity. How are the burdens of dealing with the impacts of climate change to be parceled out among the countries of the world and who should adjudicate between them? We no sooner take leave of the science proper than we enter the realm of politics, where economic, social and moral choices need to be made.

In sum, in wrestling with the issue of climate change in the science-policy interface we find ourselves on treacherous ground. Politicians are frequently tempted to meddle in science, while scientists have been known to take the liberty of yoking their findings to political causes. 

Human development

Our examples so far have been taken from the natural sciences. But what about the work of the social sciences and the lessons to be drawn from them?

I do not wish to be sidetracked by the question of whether the social sciences are a science proper. Whether we insist on subjecting the social studies to the same rigorous methods as Spinoza sought to do in the eighteenth century, we should expect the student of social phenomena to uphold at least the same standards of objectivity as the natural scientist.

 The Arctic Human Development Report claims to be a scientific assessment of human conditions in the North. It synthesizes existing knowledge, draws inferences from this knowledge and identifies areas where we need to know more. However, the report also presents findings that may seem controversial or at any rate critical of governments in the Arctic states. For example, in the summary of major conclusions it is observed that an imbalance exists between authority and resources in the Arctic today which allegedly explains why profits derived from the exploitation of the region’s natural resources tend to flow out of the Arctic. Furthermore, a mismatch is detected between indigenous peoples´ desire for self-determination and the propensity of public governments to exercise authority within their jurisdictions, leading the authors to conclude that “there is need to entertain more far-reaching changes before we can feel satisfied”.  Obviously, the dividing line between analysis and advocacy has in instances like this worn somewhat thin.

As the three examples illustrate, there are different facets of the Arctic science-policy interface. Nothing I have said is meant to detract from the excellent work done by scientists in the Arctic, often under extremely demanding circumstances. Regardless of the spin sometimes given to its findings, it would clearly be unwise not to take seriously the potential implications of a study as well researched and comprehensive as the ACIA. Similarly, the fact that the AHDR does not represent the views of governments should not diminish its value as a sourcebook of policy-relevant information and conclusions. While mandated by governments, neither the ACIA nor the AHDR should be seen as politically negotiated documents representing the policies of the Arctic states.

Bridging the gap – the role of government

In our work on the Arctic, as in other domains, we should not, of course, presume the bipolarity of truth-seeking and governing, as if the two were somehow mutually incompatible. However, it is only by keeping the two domains of science and policy separate that meaningful dialogue can, in the last analysis, be pursued between them. Governments should promote science without trying to influence the outcome of the work of scientists. In turn, scientists should understand and respect the complexities of the democratic process and the difficult choices governments face, in drawing lessons from science in public policy terms.

What then can be done to facilitate this dialogue between government and the science community to better ensure that policy is informed by the best available information? One of the priorities of Iceland´s Chairmanship in the Arctic Council was precisely to promote this kind of dialogue.

While government representatives should not take upon themselves to judge of how the scientists should organize their work in the Arctic, allow me to observe that different science and research networks are already in place, this very conference being the best example. In addition, we have the Arctic Science Summit Week, the University of the Arctic, as well as the Northern Research Forum, all of which bring their own value added to the joint endeavour. Looking ahead, high expectations are attached to the International Polar Year (2007-2008) as a focal point for future Arctic research. 

By and large these are networks set up by the science and research communities themselves.  Governments should liaise with such networks, as they do through the medium of the Arctic Council, but should also have a role in disseminating major findings established through their work. In promoting science, we must do a better job of communicating scientific findings in the public domain.

Last year, for instance, Iceland´s Foreign Ministry, in cooperation with RANNIS, the Icelandic Center for Research, among others, initiated a public conference devoted to the theme of Iceland and the Arctic: Opportunities in a Changeable Environment of Nature and International Cooperation. The goal of this conference was to provide a bird´s eye view for the non-expert of the relevance of the Arctic for our country and its people. The conference has since been followed up with a series of more focused expert workshops, dealing with subjects like biodiversity, natural resources, regional development, economic opportunities and health, whereby we hope to lay the foundation for a comprehensive national research policy in the Arctic.

Governments can also take steps of their own to cooperate and coordinate among themselves in order to stimulate research initiatives, avoid duplication and facilitate financial support. A first meeting of Ministers of Education and Science in the Arctic countries was thus organized in Reykjavík in the spring of last year. The meeting reaffirmed that education and research are “essential tools” in building capacity in Arctic communities to deal with environmental, economic and social challenges. It also agreed on a number of priority areas in the field of education and science in the Arctic.  

Another area where governments can be particularly helpful is in fostering links between work done at the regional and the global levels, more particularly in mainstreaming findings in the Arctic within competent international institutions. Successful examples include placing mercury pollution squarely on the agenda of the United Nations Environment Programme and registering the findings of the ACIA among the conference of the parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. One of the most important tasks of global dimensions now awaiting the Arctic countries is to spearhead a unified approach to the circumpolar navigation.

I observed at the outset that the Arctic had, over the last decade and a half or so, been transformed into a zone of innovation. One of the most remarkable enterprises to emerge in the region has undoubtedly been the Arctic Council, held up, among other things, as a pattern of cooperation between governments and indigenous peoples in the circumpolar region. The same might actually be said about the model of interaction now taking shape in the Arctic science-policy interface. It is by serving as a forum for dialogue and coordination between scientists and governments that the Arctic Council can, in the coming years, best contribute to the betterment of living conditions in the world´s northernmost regions.

As someone who had the good fortune of being associated with the work of the Arctic Council for two years, I am therefore honoured to have been given the opportunity of being with you today. To be involved in research in the Arctic is in some ways like participating in a journey of discovery. I wish you well as you embark on your exciting journey, confident that ICARP II will help you break fertile new ground as you seek to extend our knowledge of one of earth´s very last frontiers.

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