Conference debates northern topics

Harpa Concert and Conference Center.

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Harpa Concert and Conference Center in Reykjavík.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

The annual Arctic Circle conference is set in Reykjavík. Every October, over 1,000 researchers, practitioners, and policy makers converge on the Harpa Concert and Conference Center to debate all topics northern.

This venue showcases Norwegian science. One project is “Science and Business in Arctic Environmental Governance” (POLGOV) running from 2016 to 2019. Led by Elana Wilson Rowe from the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) in Oslo, it is funded by the Research Council of Norway.

Scientists from NUPI, the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI) in Oslo, and the High North Center for Business in Bodø join forces with experts in the UK and Canada. This international expertise with circumpolar, interdisciplinary knowledge ensures that the project tackles, and solves, difficult questions.

The project’s researchers presented throughout the Arctic Circle’s days. A dedicated POLGOV panel brought dozens of conference goers to an eighth-floor room overlooking one of the harbors. The backdrop of sea and mountains majestically set the scape for the deliberations.

The politics of regulation across the Arctic play a prominent role in POLGOV’s investigations. Oil spills and biodiversity highlight the predicaments facing all of the players, especially the people from and living in the region. How do science, business, and government interact with each other and address these topics in the Arctic without neglecting the people or the people’s leadership?

Indigenous peoples must be an integral part of this work on their own terms. Since their lands transcend international borders, governments must cooperate. Many corporate sectors seek Arctic opportunities. They are not always aware of what they must deal with, such as the climate, the environmental sensitivities, and especially the peoples. Arctic science provides many answers to their questions.

POLGOV inserts further innovation. One aspect is the powerful and poignant lessons from Antarctica. The two poles present so many differences and similarities. What could they learn from each other? How could this knowledge be exchanged?

The polar regions have long been a stalwart of Norwegian science. Reminding an Arctic conference of the possibilities from Antarctica ensures a unique place within the sessions. Exciting dialogue progresses among those who might not before have researched together.

Experimental governance appears in POLGOV through developing a ranking system for companies operating in Arctic resource extraction, namely oil, gas, and mining. The research focuses on the need for and process of developing an Arctic Corporate Responsibility Index or Arctic Environmental Responsibility Index.

So much about these issues relates to perceptions. As POLGOV continues, the index and ranking will scrutinize expert perceptions of corporate operations in the Arctic. What criteria are considered? What should companies enact for environmental protection in the Arctic? How does the public react? What parts of indices and rankings are picked up and disseminated by the media?

These questions fit directly into the wider remit of the Arctic Circle conference. The gathering exists to support exchange of ideas and to feature the Arctic globally while bringing together all sectors for interacting and learning from each other.

The conference is cross-cultural, ensuring that Arctic indigenous cultures play a central and defining role. Featuring a Polish Arctic Research exhibition, an evening of Japanese entertainment, and networking sessions run by governments such as Scotland and the Netherlands, Arctic Circle welcomes everyone and makes wide links with, around, and beyond the Arctic.

A high-level presence draws crowds. The plenary with Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, was standing room only. Several ministers and former ministers from Arctic countries sit on panels.

Art plays an important role. Film, photography, and music are ever-present around the conference. The government of Norway arranged the photography exhibition “On Thin Ice: The Lance Expedition.”

Norwegian science is central to these activities. Not just through POLGOV but also due to the scientists from around the country who attended. Norway as an Arctic country continues its world-class Arctic science for society.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 1, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.