“Melting under our feet”
International symposium focuses on climate change in the Arctic region
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
In late April, influencers and decision-makers in the Arctic region convened for two days at the Bell Harbor International Conference Center in Seattle for the sixth Arctic Encounter Symposium (AES). The event was organized by Kallander and Associates, a public and community relations firm engaged in issues and opportunities impacting Alaska and the Arctic. With the theme “Innovation in the Arctic: Ingenuity, Exploration, Collaboration,” The meeting brought together leading scientists, engineers, businessmen, academics, politicians, tribal leaders, activists, and artists to engage in a productive conversation.
With representatives from all eight Arctic nations—the United States, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Russia—many of the sessions dealt with issues in Alaska, the region closest to Washington state. Washington has been a gateway to the Arctic since the Klondike Gold Rush at the turn of the 19th century, and business and industry connections remain strong. Much of the Alaska fishing fleet is based in Seattle, as well as the corporate headquarters of Alaska Airlines, and there is heavy investment between the two regions.
At the top of the list of honored guests was keynote speaker U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R). A third-generation Alaskan, she chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and is a recognized leader in Arctic issues. Murkowski also serves as chairman of the Interior-Environment Subcommittee, and is a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
Challenges beyond borders
Climate change in the Arctic significantly outpaces that of the rest of the planet. In the last 20 years, polar ice caps have melted faster than in the last 10,000 years, and in the past two years, the rate has accelerated. Springs are arriving too early. Communities have not been prepared, with citizens’ lives at risk from unexpectedly thin ice. As permafrost disappears and the coastline changes, indigenous people are forced to migrate to new areas. As retired USAF Major-General Randy “Church” Kee, Executive Director of the Alaska Domain Awareness Center, remarked, “The world around us is melting under our feet.”
With such rapid change, there is often little time to plan or even react appropriately. Native tribes feel increasing stress as developers move into their traditional homelands. While outside workers and tourism create new opportunities, they also bring problems of pollution, sex tourism, or even worse, human trafficking. There is now organized crime in the Far North.
Investment is needed to bring about healthy socio-economic development in the region. The challenge is to bring economic opportunity to the region that is in harmony with traditional indigenous lifestyles, as they now stand at a crossroads.
The melting ice is also challenging borders between nations, and quick political action is needed to keep the peace. Under the J-Treaty, an American Indian born in Canada has the right of free access to the United States and cannot be deported. They are not required to hold a visa or any special work authorization and are automatically granted the same rights as any U.S. citizen. The only requirement is a 50% bloodline proving their heritage, now brought under question as tribal identity in modern times may have less to do with blood than social environment and upbringing. Washington state U.S. Representative Suzan DelBene (D) has sponsored a bill to eliminate this requirement, and much more legislation is needed.
Canada lags behind the United States in its support of indigenous people. In an ongoing case a tribal member crossed over the Canadian border to shoot an elk and was arrested. While Ottawa does grant native peoples some rights, it does not recognize the J-Treaty, with no plans for reciprocity on its agenda. As climate change forces migration across borders with entire communities being re-located, the Canadian position must be challenged.
Finding a voice
Tribal nations must be given a stronger voice in regard to decisions made about their homelands, for both the present and future. Sadly, they have been denied any official voice in the Arctic Council’s eight countries, yet they are the inhabitants of the Inuit Homelands, a cultural community with footprints in the region that go back 20,000 years.
In much the same way, the bulk of the legislation that determines the fate of the State of Alaska is made in Washington, D.C.—often without adequate dialog. I heard talk of the “southern perspective” at the symposium, politicians in the nation’s capital who have less at stake and less interest in the area than those who live there, the citizens and landowners of the Arctic.
Perhaps the most glaring example was the Obama administration’s decision to halt drilling in Arctic waters in 2016. Regardless of whether it was the right decision or not, years of research, planning, and investment saw an abrupt end without any real dialog with the key stakeholders. At the symposium, Alaskans gave the message that our national leaders need to fully understand the needs of the area by engaging in an ongoing conversation with its people: only this will ensure the viability of the region’s future.
The last frontier
But the overall message of the Arctic Encounter Symposium was not one of victimization but opportunity. The residents of the Far North understand that the rest of the world is experiencing climate change with them and that they do not exist outside of the world community. Four to six million people are living in the Arctic region, and there is a need to expand infrastructure to create functional, sustainable communities. Remote areas must be made accessible, with connections to amenities. New waterways and ports are opening up, and both onshore and offshore investment is needed. Mayor Richard Beneville of Nome, Alaska, shared plans for the expansion for the port there, which is emerging as the nation’s most important Arctic port, both economically and strategically.
The Arctic is the world’s final emerging market, and the race to capitalize on its resources, even to dominate the region, is on. Russia has already militarized the region with full radar coverage of its coastline, and China is even jumping into the arena as a major influencer. The Nordic countries have pursued proactive plans for development in the Arctic for decades, while the United States and Canada have lagged behind. As Washington’s U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D) underlined, our icebreaker fleet is aging, and millions of dollars must be quickly invested to insure our maritime interests. Among other things, we need to halt overfishing, and we need to work to restore the health of the ocean waters.
And as tourism continues to grow, we must ensure its sustainability. While a stopover in Reykjavik may seem like exotic experience for many today, with 29 airlines passing through its airport and 2.5 million tourists in Iceland in 2018, planned growth in tourism is necessary, not only for environmental reasons, but for the cultural integrity of local communities as well. As former President of Iceland and Arctic Circle Assembly Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson pointed out, his country cannot be 100% invested in tourism, and a balanced economy is critical for the entire Arctic region.
Hope on the horizon
While it was impossible for me to cover all the sessions of the Arctic Encounter Symposium, after two days, I felt as if a new world had been opened up for me. Not only was there the opportunity to learn from regional experts, I also enjoyed conversing one-on-one with the community leaders, businesspeople, and artists who participated in the displays. It is also not every day that you get to chat with your U.S. Senator, the Mayor of Nome, the leader of an Alaskan tribe, the former President of Iceland, the Ambassador of Finland, and a host of international experts, but the open, relaxed atmosphere of the meeting allowed for these unique opportunities.
Perhaps event organizer Rachel Kallander best sums up the 2019 AES: “The sixth annual Arctic Encounter Symposium took an approach toward innovation in order to explore and promote the innovators in the Arctic space, from individual thought leaders to businesses to cutting edge technologies, climate engineering, and research. I’m thrilled with the results of the 2019 convening—there was a hopeful energy in the room as experts and stakeholders alike shared candidly, debated solutions, and engaged some of the most complicated challenges in the Arctic and climate arenas.”
The Norwegian American was proud to participate as a media partner for the Arctic Encounter Symposium. For more information about the 2019 AES and upcoming events, visit www.arcticencounter.com.
This article originally appeared in the June 14, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.