Hanover, New Hampshire has a population of 11,000. It is 90 miles from Burlington, 120 from Boston, and 260 from New York. Undergraduate and graduate students at Dartmouth College have tremendous global learning opportunities, and, as an IGERT student, I have received enormous support for developing my less-conventional career goals in the policy arena. Still, Hanover is geographically distant from scientific and political hubs, and I do not regularly interact with the larger community of students and experts committed to ensuring a peaceful and sustainable future for the rapidly changing Arctic environment.
The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere on the planet, three times the global mean temperature change, in fact. Its changes are affecting human populations, ecosystems, and economic opportunities, and the Arctic Council provides the sole forum for solution development and consensus building. The Arctic is unique in being a region where climate changes are affecting resource availability, human health, cultural heritage, and governance across many national boundaries—and to the great interest of the rest of the globe. As US Public Affairs Officer Steven Labensky stated on the first day of the winter school, “the ramifications and solutions to challenges [faced by Arctic nations] fall also below the 66th parallel.” He saluted the decision to include observer nations in the Model Arctic Council.
I view the challenges faced and solutions developed by the Arctic states a mild harbinger of what is in store for the more politically volatile, more densely populated region of the Tibetan Plateau, where I also conduct research and ultimately hope to do diplomatic work. The Arctic Council – its procedures, its shortcomings, and its enormous successes – will serve to provide the world with a model for peaceful international dialogue and resolutions for collaborative adaptation and sustainable development.
In addition to learning about the history, procedures, and priorities of the Arctic Council, I left Arkhangelsk reflecting on two subjects I had not necessarily anticipated: first, the role of scientists in Arctic diplomacy and, second, what it means for America—and for an American—to be part of the larger Arctic community.
Circumpolar map showing 8 Arctic nations. (source: mapresources.com)
The Arctic Council formed in 1996, with the signing of the Ottawa Declaration, but its precursor began in 1991 with the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS). Although the AC now promotes coordination on issues ranging from health to economics to cultural preservation, it was exclusively environmental at its inception. Therefore, the work of earth and environmental scientists has always been of central interest and relevance to Council officials and ministers, and the AC’s working groups represent a closer formal and procedural tie between government leaders and scientists than I’ve been exposed to elsewhere.
The Arctic Council’s working groups provide a pathway for soliciting and implementing science; however, much of the responsibility still lies with the scientists. A group that is balancing many interests, considerations, and priorities may not be able to seek out every aspect of relevant scientific work, particularly if it is not easily and readily accessible. What I’ve heard my adviser call “loading dock science” is a luxury that climate and Arctic scientists can no longer afford. We cannot conduct our work in a vacuum, publish it, and expect someone else to communicate it and advocate for its consideration in policy decisions. Nor can we continue to speak an arcane language only our scientific colleagues understand. It is not uncommon for an Arctic Council member to say to a scientist, “You’re speaking English but I don’t understand what you’re saying,” according to Prof. Douglas Nord who has attended several AC meetings over the last two decades. Scientists are not permitted to make official policy recommendations to the AC, but it is their responsibility to communicate results, their relevancy, and their implications clearly to ensure that decisions are made with consideration of accurate and up-to-date scientific knowledge.
American universities are producing an astounding amount of research on the Arctic Ocean, ecosystems, ice, climate, and other aspects of the Northern region, which is particularly appropriate given the United States’ status as an Arctic Nation. I’ve had the privilege of traveling twice to Greenland and twice to Alaska for coursework and research, and so it surprised me that several of my friends seemed confused when I told them I was representing the U.S. at this Model Arctic Council. “Wait, what? Why does the U.S. care about the Arctic? [pause] Oh, just because of Alaska?” was a common response, even among my peers at Dartmouth.
On the first day of the workshop, we participated in a roundtable discussion with policy representatives about the role of public diplomacy in Arctic issues. I posed the question of whether it’s problematic for the general American public not to understand the enormous opportunities and responsibilities associated with owning land and marine shelf in the Arctic. In terms of regional governance and international relations, perhaps the fact that many Americans view Alaska as a gas tank is not a problem. But choosing not to extend public diplomacy efforts to the younger generation seems, to me, a lost opportunity to engage the public in questions concerning the effects of, collective adaptation to, and equitable capitalization on changes in climate. Furthermore, by not actively engaging in Arctic issues, we miss exploring part of our identity as Americans.
I was one of 5 participants representing the United States in Arkhangelsk and the only one not from Alaska. On the first day of the workshop, the group took an organized excursion to Russia’s largest open-air museum, Malye Korely.
Standing outside a chapel at the open air museum, Malye Korely.
As I walked among the 18th century churches and peasant homes, I realized that I knew embarrassingly little about Russian history. I tried to make up for what I’ve lacked in my history courses and my independent reading in the evenings (when I could get my internet connection to work). But it didn’t hit me until the conclusion of the Model Arctic Council, when we were invited to the grand opening of the exhibition on American Russia at Arkhangelsk’s Museum of the Arctic, that Russian history—at least prior to the purchase of Alaska in 1867—is part of American history.
Museum of the Arctic: opening of exhibition on American Russia.
A native New Englander, I have always vaguely identified with European history. But to the rest of the international Arctic community, particularly to the Russians, Americans are the people who acquired Alaska. It’s crucial to remember that this one state, with its unique geographical location and associated history, is an important part of our country that provides us with the privilege to contribute to developing, protecting, and preserving one of the most vulnerable parts of our planet.
Museum of the Arctic.