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Anticipating Storms Ahead — Arctic Circle Report

I’m at the 2nd annual Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik, a combination trade show, diplomatic showcasing event, networking extravaganza, and academic conference that follows up on the 2013 meeting, which I reported on last year.photo

If I learned one thing at yesterday’s plenary sessions it’s that the Arctic has nasty weather. I’m not just referring to the stormy winds encountered by attendees as they walked across the plaza to the entrance of Reykjavik’s Harpa convention centre. The region’s rough weather also was a dominant theme in several of the first day’s presentations.

Why the weather?

For Arctic business promoters, it’s important to stress that even as the Arctic is increasingly accessible as a zone of opportunity, it’s not too accessible. Many of the businesses at the Arctic Circle are there to sell their local knowledge or to market their equipment that’s specifically adopted to the rigors of the Arctic environment. If the Arctic were truly a ‘polar Mediterranean’ (to use a term originally popularised by Vilhjalmur Stefansson in the early 20th century and increasingly used by Iceland, in particular, to highlight the Arctic’s emergence as an amicable space of commercial and cultural interchange), then few of these specialised skills and tools would be needed.

Thus, in the opening session Iceland’s prime minister Sigmunder Davið Gunnlaugsson downplayed the significance of climate change in the Arctic, stressing its variability. He also noted that the impacts of climate change will, in a sense, be limited:

The Arctic will always be the Arctic, not the Mediterranean….Although it is warming up for business, we still have to keep our heads cool. The weather in the Arctic will continue to be cold and unpredictable, and the high seas hazardous. Drifting ice is no less dangerous than bigger icebergs. The region is becoming more accessible, yes. But it is not an open highway.

The implication is that Iceland’s Arctic logistics capabilities will still be needed, even as larger shippers from larger countries become more active in the region. As others stressed at panels later in the day, the Arctic Ocean will remain exceptionally icy for most of the year for the foreseeable future: It is not an area into which one should venture (or into which one should sink investments) without a knowledgable guide.

The prime minister’s speech was followed by an address from Finnish president Sauli Niinistö, who also stressed that the Arctic was a climatologically dangerous place. As we learned from trade videos during the Finnish session that followed later in the day, Finnish firms possess the icebreaker technology that will allow one to operate in these risky waters.

The morning ended with a presentation from the US delegation, in which Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski practiced an argument that she surely will be making frequently in Washington over the coming years: Under the upcoming US chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the US must show its commitment to Arctic development by investing in critical infrastructure that will link together and protect fragile communities in the remote and frigid Alaskan wilderness. Finally, US Special Representative to the Arctic Robert Papp drew on his experience as former Commandant of the US Coast Guard to stress that as the Arctic opens up for resource extraction and navigation his priority as the US’ point person on Arctic affairs will be to promote regulations and investments that can ensure the ‘safety and security’ of Arctic peoples and the Arctic environment.

I imagine that if a similar event had occurred five or ten years ago there likely would have been much more emphasis on the Arctic as an emergent space of opportunity and much less on the need for potential Arctic (economic) actors to rely on specialist firms, technologies, or consulting services to navigate the weather so that they can exploit this opportunity.

So, what has changed?

Perhaps Arctic states and Arctic-oriented firms have realised that they have marketed the Arctic too well as a space of opportunity for all, and as a result they’re now scrambling to carve out their business niches. This, in turn, requires them to highlight their unique capabilities to assist investors in a climatologically dangerous environment. Perhaps industrialists have learned that opportunities are not as great as they originally thought them to be (or as they had hyped them to be), a realisation that might be aided right now by relatively low oil and gas prices. Or perhaps this is the normal emergence of a ‘mature’ economic region in which, after first acknowledging the existence of an ‘opportunity’, firms and countries now are specifying their unique comparative advantages in capitalising on that opportunity.

Regardless, the Icelandic prime minister’s enthusiastic, but also guarded, reference to Stefannson’s concept of the Polar Mediterranean resonated with me. In part, this was because when I heard it I was preparing to present on that very topic at a breakout session later that day. However, it also resonated because, as Fernand Braudel demonstrates in his magisterial work on the Mediterranean, cultural and economic connections across an inland sea are often as much the result of adaptations to a space’s bad weather as they are the result of positive environmental conditions.

As critical work on anticipatory futures (in the Arctic and elsewhere), hazard preparedness, perceptions of climate change, and emergency preparedness reveal, dangerous environments (or, to be more precise, the anticipation of dangerous environments) can beget positive opportunities. The Arctic business and governance community appears to have embraced this finding wholeheartedly. I can’t wait to venture out into the stormy winds of Iceland to find out more.

Phil S

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