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Why Is Working With Arctic Scenarios So Hard?

By Klaus Dodds and Duncan Depledge

Imagining what the future might hold in the Arctic is no easy task. After you have attended a few future-looking events, you begin to form an impression about how they might work, both organizationally and intellectually.

You will almost certainly be confronted with political leaders, civil servants, scientists, business representatives, nongovernmental organization advocates, and even military officials who all talk about the need for more information to address critical uncertainties about climate change, broader environmental change, societal change, markets, geopolitics, and the viability of deploying certain technologies in extremely hazardous conditions. The net effect is either to “shut down” discussion about Arctic futures and cite information paucity or, paradoxically, to fixate on one prominent event or actor, assuming that it will remain the driver of any future developments in the Arctic, such as a resurgent Russia.

Intellectually, scenario work is hard when you are in a room filled with a diverse group of people, from indigenous representatives of the Arctic region to civil servants from the Arctic states and beyond. Tensions are almost inevitable as conversations unfold about possible futures in a context where the recent past is still punctuated by ongoing land claims, colonial violence, trade disputes, and political accommodation between indigenous states, governments, and extra-regional parties. In our experience, the articulation of futures inevitably ends up being conditioned by a whole series of conversations about an unsettled past and uncertain present.

Perhaps this would only come as a surprise if you came into a discussion room oblivious to the fact that there are multiple Arctics with overlapping histories and geographies. It has never been an inert space, a cold desert, or a place without peoples. The permeable nature of Arctic borders adds further complexities and possibilities, although sometimes this complexity actually closes down discussion of multiple futures on the grounds that there are too many perspectives to consider. An increasingly popular refrain is that “what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic,” and equally, that “what happens outside the Arctic can and does have considerable impacts in the Arctic.” Thus we have to think about how industrial development and geopolitical confrontation beyond the Arctic might be transported back and forth into the region. In the same way, local changes in biodiversity and climate are having consequences for global climate and food chains.

One seemingly straightforward approach to thinking about the future (or futures) of the Arctic is to conjure up a range of different scenarios that bring different futures into the present. The task is then to assess whether any given future is desirable or undesirable and to whom it might be desirable or undesirable. One of the most useful things to come out of an Arctic futures/scenario workshop is often a very simple but important point about agency—who gets to shape possible scenarios—and how “we” judge what might be desirable, dreadful, avoidable, sustainable, and so on.

Following a judgment on whether a given future is one we should try to work toward or avoid, we must turn our attention to thinking about what steps are needed to bring that given future about. This applies regardless of whether we think it is a positive or negative future, as it is only by working out how we might reach a specific future that we can first assess the plausibility of that future coming into being and second identify interventions that will enable us to invite, pre-empt, prevent, or caution against it.

This kind of thinking has relevance to inter-governmental forums such as the Arctic Council, which, by aligning itself to agreements on search and rescue and oil spill response and by devising rules on observer admittance, has been actively engaging in shaping a particular future for the Arctic based on Arctic state sovereignty, indigenous recognition, and relationships with extra-regional others, including China, the European Union, and the U.K. If, as some were claiming recently, the Arctic Council is a “model of global governance,” then we presume that such a claim rests on a confident vision of a particular Arctic future—one ultimately dominated by the Arctic states and some limited participation from indigenous peoples’ organizations.

Indeed, this is the approach we sought to adopt when we were recently asked to prepare a set of three scenarios depicting three Arctic futures in 2045 for an international conference at Wilton Park in the United Kingdom. It was a salutary experience.

What was immediately obvious when discussions about these different futures began, though, was just how hard it is to step outside the present to think about the future. One problem that stood out was that an inherent conservatism is triggered by any discussion of the future in order to protect the existing structures of the present. However much you might wish to encourage it, free-range thinking still requires a leap of faith from participants, especially among a mixed audience.

Consequently, it turned out that it was quite difficult to think about a future Arctic in 2045 where the Arctic Council had undergone any further change, despite the fact that the organization has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. Observers to the Arctic Council, for example, far outnumber the eight Arctic states, and so any future involving more observers (or more involved observers) was considered quite unsettling by some participants. Similarly, it was difficult to imagine an Arctic in a world far less reliant on minerals, oil, and gas than it is today, and the potential consequences this decreased dependence might have for decisions about Arctic investment, infrastructure, and governance. Even to admit such a possibility seemed a bit discombobulating for some. 

But can it really be that the Arctic in 2045 will look very much the same as it does today, with the same actors, the same issues, and the same structures in place? If not, then how can we prepare for different Arctic futures unless we are prepared to accept that the region is changing rapidly and in quite profound ways?

One answer is to perhaps think more deeply about the purpose of thinking with scenarios. None of the three scenarios we developed were intended to predict the future of the Arctic, far less offend existing personalities, agents, structures, and relations. Instead, what is often valuable about thinking through multiple scenarios is that it can afford the opportunity to identify interventions (positive or negative) that might be common to a range of possible futures.

If, for example, it is agreed that averting negative futures and bringing about positive futures depend in all three scenarios on strengthening the Arctic Council, then we have identified an intervention that would for the most part make sense to pursue. At the same time, it is important to be as inclusive as possible in this process, ensuring that those who are most likely to be affected across multiple scenarios are heard. Any Arctic scenario exercise that does not feature a strong indigenous and northern community presence is in danger of not only being narrowly focused, but also, and more importantly, of shutting down the range of possibilities informed by individuals who have witnessed great change.

Arctic futures are being imagined, debated, negotiated, and resisted as we write. It is important to engage with them, but it is just as vital that “we” don’t develop tin ears when it comes to listening to those working with those “futures” as part of everyday rather than academic, political, or corporate life. 

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Klaus Dodds is professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and co-author of the book, Scrambles for the Poles: Contemporary Geopolitics of the Arctic and Antarctic (with Mark Nuttall, Polity 2015).

Duncan Depledge is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, and director of the secretariat to the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group for Polar Regions. He received his PhD from Royal Holloway for his research investigating contemporary developments in U.K. policy toward the Arctic.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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