Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Arctic Stewardship: Maintaining Regional Resilience in an Era of Global Change

Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Arctic Stewardship: Maintaining Regional Resilience in an Era of Global Change

Article excerpt

That the Arctic is undergoing transformative changes driven in large part by external forces is no longer news. (1) The high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, which are not themselves significant sources of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) or short-lived climate pollutants (such as black carbon soot), are experiencing effects attributable to climate change that are equal to or greater than those occurring in any of the planet's other large regions. (2) Prominent among these effects are rising surface temperatures, a deepening of the active layer of the permafrost, the collapse of sea ice, increases in the intensity of coastal storm surges made possible by the retreat of sea ice, the accelerated melting of the Greenland ice sheet, and the acidification of marine systems. The deposition of black carbon in the high north alone--almost 60 percent of which is thought to originate in Europe (3)--appears to account for half or more of the increase in temperature occurring in the Arctic. (4) Positive feedback processes, such as lowered albedo (that is, the capacity of Earth's surface to reflect incoming solar radiation back into space) following the melting of ice at sea and snow on land, have the effect of magnifying the impact of these external forces. Nowhere is the challenge of adapting to the impacts of climate change more urgent than in Arctic coastal communities confronted with the need to relocate to avoid physical destruction. (5) And nowhere are the threats to individual species (for example, the polar bear) and whole ecosystems more severe than they are in the Arctic, where biophysical changes are outstripping the capacity of plants and animals to adapt to altered conditions. (6)

At the same time, increased access to the Arctic resulting from climate change has made the region more attractive to global economic players concerned with commercial shipping and the production of the raw materials (minerals, hydrocarbons, and others) essential to the operation of the advanced industrial economies of the midlatitudes. Given the forecast that the volume of international trade is likely to triple by 2020, with 90 percent of it traveling by sea, the intensity of international interest in commercial shipping in the Arctic is hardly surprising. (7) Projections show that the Arctic may contain 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas, along with large proven deposits of nickel, lead, zinc, iron ore, and diamonds--making it easy to grasp the region's attraction to powerful multinational corporations. (8) The actions of these global players can produce local benefits, including employment opportunities for Arctic residents and tax revenues for local and regional governments. But it is clear that the welfare of northern peoples and Arctic ecosystems is not the primary concern of corporate decision-makers. They may easily redirect their attention to other regions of the world as opportunities and constraints shift, regardless of the consequences of their actions for northern communities.

This essay explores the consequences of these developments for the Arctic and seeks to identify strategies for enhancing its resilience, given the extent to which external forces determine the course of events in the region. Specifically, I address the following questions: What sorts of harms arising from changes now occurring in the Arctic are actionable in the sense that it is realistic to expect existing legal and political processes to respond to them in specific cases? Who can and should take the actions required to respond to these harms? What specific remedies are available to those harmed by the impact of external forces? How can we encourage responsible outsiders to fulfill their commitments? Equally important, how can we avoid actions taken in this context that (however well-intentioned) give rise to the pathologies of paternalism, internal colonialism, or neocolonialism? …

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