Local residents must be heard in Arctic climate and energy policy

In recent years, Arctic areas have played a pivotal role in the debate on energy and security policy. As global warming is having the strongest impacts on the northernmost areas, new sea routes will emerge, as will new opportunities to use natural resources.

The United States is acting as the Chair of the Arctic Council in 2015–2017. Its chairmanship programme focuses on three areas: Improving Economic & Living Conditions for Arctic Communities; Arctic Ocean Safety, Security & Stewardship; Addressing the Impacts of Climate Change.  As part of its quest for answers to these questions, the US launched a Fulbright Arctic Initiative research programme, bringing together 17 researchers from eight Arctic countries to address the joint challenges affecting the entire Arctic area.  The programme began on 1 May 2015 and will last for 18 months. I am one of the programme participants – the only one from Finland.

Cooperation throughout the area

The expertise of the Arctic Initiative programme participants is centred around the four themes of the Fulbright Arctic Initiative programme: energy, water, health and infrastructure. Each programme participant is conducting a personal research project around one of these themes. Additionally, we have formed three groups that engage in cooperative research I am in the energy group with five other researchers.

The first steps of our cooperation were challenging, as we come from different academic fields and did not know each other in advance. We launched our cooperation in May, by attending a week-long seminar in the town of Iqaluit, on Baffin Island, in the Nunavut territory of Northeast Canada. As our first step, we sought to form an overall understanding of key questions pertaining to energy production and energy policy in the Arctic. After the seminar, we continued to cooperate through ‘irregularly regular’ online meetings, online conferences involving all programme participants, and in a midway seminar held last February in Oulu, Finland.

Gradually our work has progressed: our group created a website (http://fulbrightenergy.com/), drew up publication plans and finally settled on a common research topic. Our joint efforts will involve looking into what an increasing shift towards renewable energy sources means for Arctic regions, particularly to its inhabitants, and their means of influencing such a change. We will showcase our work next October in Washington, where the programme results will be presented at several events to the Arctic policymakers, researchers and the general public.

Participants in the Fulbright Arctic Initiative programme in Iqaluit in May 2015.

Climate change and energy policy in the Arctic

The Arctic region will face major changes in the coming decades. Although local emissions are relatively small, climate change is having greater effects on this region than elsewhere. The Arctic climate has already warmed by two degrees since pre-industrial times, and the changing climate is affecting traditional livelihoods such as fishing and reindeer husbandry. Increasingly strict emissions targets – to which the agreement reached in Paris last December can be expected to contribute – mean increasing use of renewable energy, including in the Arctic region. The tree line is expected to move northwards over forthcoming decades. Estimates suggest that boreal forests will replace 10–50% of tundra within the next 100 years.

On the other hand, different Arctic countries are facing very different situations. The week we spent in Iqaluit last May clearly demonstrated how different the living situation is in the North American Arctic compared to the Scandinavian Arctic. In the territory of Nunavut, where Baffin Island is located, energy production is almost completely reliant on energy imported from elsewhere. Practically all electricity is generated by diesel. Most villages spend most of the year completely cut off, with aeroplanes serving as the only means of transport. Problems and solutions that are relevant to Scandinavia may not be relevant at all to North Canada or Alaska.

The opinions and livelihoods of local inhabitants matter

Arctic areas are facing considerable problems, and there are no simple solutions. A programme such as Fulbright Arctic Initiative produces information and insight in support of the work of decision-makers. It is essential to hear local inhabitants – Inuits, the Sámi people and others alike – in decision-making, in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of past decades. They must be listened to when energy production is developed.

On the other hand, such areas also need support in adapting to the effects of climate change. Indigenous people in many Arctic areas often have social problems. As global warming threatens traditional livelihoods such as reindeer husbandry and seal hunting, these problems and general feelings of pessimism are at risk of worsening. Both the United States and Finland as the next Chair of the Arctic Council seem willing to address these issues. Time will tell what solutions are found for Arctic climate and energy policy.

Laura Sokka

Senior Scientist

Laura Sokka is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Department of Earth System Science at Stanford University.

The Fulbright Center (Finland–US Educational Exchange Commission FUSEEC) is an organisation specialising in academic exchanges between Finland and North America. In Finland, the Fulbright Center is a private, independent, non-profit organisation whose operations are funded by the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, the US and Canadian governments and increasingly by private foundations and individuals. The Fulbright Center annually awards some EUR 900,000 in scholarships for exchanges between Finland and the US.

The Fulbright programme supports academically distinguished students, researchers and professionals from various fields. The Fulbright Center also awards grants to American postgraduate students, lecturers, researchers and experts arriving in Finland.  VTT also receives high-level visiting researchers from America every year through the Fulbright programme. 

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