French president François Hollande is among the keynote speakers at the annual Arctic Circle assembly, which takes place in Reykjavík over the weekend. The event commenced earlier today with a welcoming address by Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who has in recent years emphasised Arctic issues and stressed the importance of maintaining good relations with Russia on that front. With over 1,500 attendees from 40 countries, the conference is being touted as an open venue for dialogue on Arctic affairs. This seems apt, considering that it allows virtually anyone to present their stance on the issues at hand, regardless of where on the globe they’re situated—hence the scheduled session on Brazil and the Arctic, for instance. Arctic Circle lists several universities and research institutes as partners, along with organisations like Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund. The other end of the spectrum is also represented, for instance, by local petrol vendors N1 and state-run energy company Landsvirkjun. Amusingly, the breakout sessions at the conference reflect on this contrast, with attendees, for example, being made to choose between sessions on Arctic biodiversity and Arctic security.
The assembly is hosted by a self-described non-profit, non-partisan organisation called Arctic Circle. Speaking with the Grapevine, Arctic Circle CEO Dagfinnur Sveinbjörnsson says its main vision is to strengthen international dialogue on the Arctic and to create a platform for exchange of information from what may appear to be separate spheres of interest and activity. “Lawmakers and ministers will be exposed to the most current scientific findings,” Dagfinnur explains, “and leaders of business and industry will be subject to the views, concerns and criticism of environmental organisations and activists.”
“Transformations of the Arctic’s natural environment are clearly among the most profound implications of global climate change,” Dagfinnur responds when asked whether the conference will place special emphasis on the subject. “Thus, François Hollande will give a speech on the Arctic and climate change, which will serve as a prelude to the negotiations set to take place in Paris in early December,” he continues, referring to the COP21 conference on climate change. François is among speakers at the opening plenary, joining representatives of China, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the World Wildlife Fund.
One of the breakout sessions is dedicated to COP21 and the political diplomacy it involves. Another session, organised by the Arctic Council’s Working Group on the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), examines biodiversity in the Arctic, while WWF hosts a session on “Arctic Renewable Energy: Alternatives for People and the Environment.” Judging by this, environmental issues clearly play a great role at the conference.
Truth and consequences
While Arctic issues are being discussed at Harpa, the search for oil at “Drekasvæðið” continues. In light of this, a number of environmentalists have announced plans to gather before the opening plenary session, intending to remind guests and the media about the risks involved in searching for oil in the Arctic.
Organiser Hildur Knútsdóttir says the gathering is not really aimed at the conference, stressing that is meant to be more of a reminder or encouragement to attendees, rather than a conventional protest. “A lot of influential people will be discussing Arctic issues at the assembly, and one cannot discuss Arctic issues without discussing climate change. Therefore, we find it to be a highly relevant platform to highlight how Iceland’s planned oil drilling in the Arctic contradicts its international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—and how the act is generally dangerous and mad in every way,” says Hildur, adding that Icelanders still have yet to actively consider the inherent consequences of becoming an oil nation.
Hildur’s reminder is surely relevant to the many Arctic Circle attendees who will be discussing the region’s potential oil and gas reserves, and the feasibility of harnessing them.
Indeed, various nations’ expressed interests in exploiting the area’s resources play a significant part at Arctic Circle. Many of the sessions are dedicated to potential energy resources, including a forum on energy security, with representatives from energy companies and economic and engineering scholars. Other sessions place a spotlight on topics like subcontractors’ mining opportunities in Greenland and the impact of large-scale projects on local communities.
As noted, a number of nations that are far removed from the Arctic geographically will be outlining their visions for the region over the weekend, with China, United Arab Emirates, Germany and Korea all sending delegates, and special sessions planned for each country.
With both the U.S. and Russia directly bordering the Arctic, potential conflicts of interest provide a source of speculation for the two planned sessions about security and defence issues in the region. Points of interest include speculation on the U.S. potentially stationing ballistic missile systems in the Arctic, along with a more general discussion on the economic and environmental concerns connected with militarising the area.
Considering the diversity of the various topics relating to the Arctic, it will be interesting to see whether the 1,500 attendees—many of whom represent wildly opposing interests—will be able to engage in constructive dialogue with one another. Can engineers and biologists reach a conclusion? Do anthropologists have anything constructive to add to discussions on military defence in the arctic?
Dagfinnur admits that this is a concern: “One could argue that the fragmented nature of the dialogue has been a problem. The way in which different groups have been kept in separate compartments has also been a problem. There is a need for a more effective exchange of information and for these separate groups of people to meet and engage with each other.”
However, Dagfinnur says he is hopeful that Artic Circle will serve to bring much-needed attention to important issues: “As past assemblies have vividly illustrated, the Arctic Circle is possibly the most prominent and internationally diverse gathering on Arctic affairs, where leaders of governments and industry have—in front of a large audience, and under scrutiny from the international media—been subject to searching questions from environmentalists and activists.”