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The Arctic Council: From Achievement to Self-Reflection and Learning

This article is part of the Arctic in Context series of expert assessments of the Arctic Council at its 20th anniversary. 

By Annika E. Nilsson

Anniversaries tend to inspire kudos for past achievements, and the Arctic Council’s 20-year anniversary is no exception. We often hear about how it has created conditions for agreements on search and rescue, preventing oil pollution, and, recently, scientific cooperation. Even more important may be the many scientific assessment processes, which lead to new insights that influence policy priorities and research, such as those regarding the impacts of pollution on human health and the Arctic environment. But past achievements do not automatically translate into future success. Indeed, the current structure of the Council may fall short when the region faces issues that were not center stage when the structure for circumpolar international cooperation was created during the negotiations for the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy in the early 1990s. It is therefore useful to reflect on how old successes relate to the new demands that a changing Arctic landscape will place on the Arctic Council. 

Climate change is a case in point, and its environmental, social, and political impacts exemplify the new landscape in which an international regional governance body has to operate. The issues are global and involve high politics, while many actions that are required for both mitigation and adaptation need to happen on the ground with the involvement of local leadership. Moreover, shared interest among Arctic actors cannot be taken for granted—rather, opposing viewpoints should be expected, given the contradictions between the goals of slowing down global warming and profiting from oil and gas resources. The way the Arctic Council’s operations are organized also poses a challenge for addressing climate change, as the issue cuts across all working groups, creating new demands on coordination and leadership within the Council.

Another equally complex issue is the impact of extractive industries on sustainable development, where local environmental and economic concerns are tightly intertwined with national resource security agendas and global markets, as well as with issues of power over decision making. Historically, extractive industries have had major impacts on Arctic societies, affecting everything from demographic patterns to major infrastructure development, yet, so far, the Arctic Council has paid limited attention to their role in sustainable development. Regarding mining, the Council has done practically nothing, perhaps because the main social and environmental impacts are viewed as local rather than international issues.

In both of these cases, one could argue that the necessary solutions do not align with the scope of a circumpolar international governance structure, and that the Arctic Council should focus only on issues that require cooperation among the Arctic states. However, given the fact that most issues facing the region have both local and global dimensions, such narrowly defined priorities would soon make the Arctic Council less relevant. A more proactive alternative is to focus on how governance should be organized in order to learn and adapt as new issues come to the fore, regardless of whether they are initially framed as local, national, circumpolar, or global.

It is all too easy for an organization to strive only for what appears possible rather than what is necessary. In a discussion at Arctic Frontiers 2016 about why the Arctic Council had been so successful, one comment was that success stemmed from working on issues where it was easy to agree. Considering the changes facing the Arctic region, success in the coming 20 years may stem instead from the ability to navigate “wicked” issues where achieving consensus is not so simple. Wicked issues don’t have simple solutions and different actors perceive them from widely differing perspectives. Trust is tested when dealing with wicked issues, as is the ability to negotiate in a way that leaves all parties reasonably satisfied.

A question for the Arctic Council is whether it is—or can become—an organization with the ability to reflect on its own shortcomings and learn from past experience. A study conducted as part of the Arctic Resilience Assessment of how the Arctic Council has handled three issues in the past—persistent organic pollutants, climate change, and extractive industries—shows that its record is mixed. Regarding persistent organic pollutants (POPs), the Council was able to widen its focus from long-range transboundary pollution to also include addressing sources of POPs in the Arctic. The Council has had more trouble taking necessary actions to address climate change, as politics and the difficulties of the current working group structure have been significant obstacles. For extractive industries, some work has been done in relation to oil spills, but mining and its relationship with sustainability has been absent from the agenda. The study concludes that while the Arctic Council has been able to accommodate some new issues, the separation of issues into working groups with their own cultures and separate networks of experts has not facilitated learning across issue areas.

With rapid environmental and social changes in the region, the need to learn and adapt to new challenges will become even more crucial if the organization is to make a difference for people living in the Arctic. What, then, is required? Studies of social learning and environmental governance have identified organizational features that increase the capacity to take on wicked issues in a way that leads to a better understanding of different perspectives. They include openness and transparency in decision-making processes, participation, dialogue, trust, and social networks that cut across various communities of practice. This would, for example, demand better communication both between working groups and between scientific experts and the policy sphere. Additionally, the Council should find constructive ways to engage with observers. Other changes to consider relate to the norms that shape social interactions within the organization. Such norms can address how the boundary between policy and science is organized and negotiated. There is also a need to create opportunities to discuss and move forward with issues that are difficult to handle through formal decision-making processes.

Given the new context of the Arctic in global affairs, the Arctic Council may want to use its 20-year anniversary to consider ways to facilitate learning, especially for politically contentious issues requiring a broad range of expertise. The base to build on is already there, thanks to the work that started in the late 1980s and early 1990s to build trust among different countries and in relation to indigenous peoples. This base is further supported by existing expert networks, some of which span across policy, science, and indigenous knowledge holders. While it might easier to only focus on a few issues where the circumpolar scale is particularly relevant and where consensus is almost assured, such a choice may mean that the Arctic Council would not live up to its commitments to the well-being of the Arctic’s inhabitants, to sustainable development, and to the protection of the Arctic environment. It would also mean losing out on an opportunity to build on the trust and the social networks the Arctic Council has contributed to during its first 20 years.

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Dr. Annika E. Nilsson is senior research fellow at Stockholm Environment Institute, affiliated faculty in environmental politics at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, and a Mistra Arctic Fellow with German Marshall Fund of the United States. She has been engaged in several scientific assessments under the auspices of the Arctic Council, including the Arctic Resilience Assessment.

[Photo courtesy of RogDel]

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