Dalee Sambo Dorough, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, speaks at a session called “The Power of Knowledge” at the 2019 Arctic Frontiers conference. (Photo: Alberto Grohovaz/Arctic Frontiers 2019)
Aili Keskitalo, president of the Sámi Parliament of Norway, a representative body for the Indigenous Sámi people, speaking on a panel in the same session, joined Dorough in linking the application of Indigenous knowledge to the Indigenous right of self-determination. This, after fellow panelists Lisa Murkowski, the United States senator for Alaska, and Ine Eriksen Søreide, Norway’s Foreign Minister, spoke about difficulties Arctic residents face in making some decision-makers in the South aware of the scale of the problem of climate change in the Arctic. Keskitalo’s reply: “It’s true that Indigenous voices are not heard by decision makers. That can be fixed. By making us the decision makers.”
An important corollary complicates this subject — the fact that many non-Indigenous Arctic residents also believe that outsiders have a greater influence than locals over what happens in the region. Conference host Willy Ørnebakk, chair of the Troms County government, got this on the table right at the outset in his opening remarks, when he praised local “Arctic know-how” and declared: “The driving force in future development should be people living in the region, not workers flown in one day and out the next.”
Often, that external influence spills over into something more destructive. “Outsiders have been exceptionally good at exploiting [local] smartness,” said Klaus Dodds. “Every community will tell a story of feeling used and abused when it comes to Arctic smarts.” In a nod to this year’s “Smart Arctic” theme, he said instead of talking about knowledge economies, he prefers the term knowledge “solidarities,” which means: “Are we co-producing that knowledge, are we co-circulating that knowledge, are we co-consuming that knowledge and, to be honest, who is making money from that knowledge?”
In a related exchange, John-Arne Rottingen, chief executive of the Research Council of Norway, was asked if his organization had formal ways of incorporating Indigenous knowledge into its work. It does, he said, but then added: “I wouldn’t differentiate necessarily between Indigenous people and other people. I think there’s a commonality in actually involving [all] people…, Indigenous and others, in deciding what are the most important research questions, understanding their often-tacit knowledge, knowledge that is not codified. Indigenous Peoples have that knowledge, but also other people.”
The last word here went to Dorough, who acknowledged Rottingen’s point on inclusion, but reasserted the distinctions between local and Indigenous knowledge — based both on the longevity and nature of the Indigenous relationship with the Arctic environment and also the law. “You probably have a legal obligation to be responsive to Indigenous Peoples,” she said. “There are solemn commitments governments have made.”
Better connections are critical
As you’d expect of a conference themed “Smart Arctic,” technology received plenty of attention. Speakers talked about its potential to boost and diversify local economies, to alleviate social strife by improving education, retention of language and culture, and reducing the brain drain (particularly among young women, who typically get more education than young men in much of the Arctic, and often leave their communities in the process), and to help in monitoring and responding to changes in the local environment.
Achieving these goals, however, remains impossible where there is little or no high-speed, high-bandwidth Internet and data access. Ken Coates, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan who specializes in regional innovation, Indigenous and northern Canadian issues, told the conference that Internet in the Canadian north is five to 10 years behind the south. Nettie La Belle-Hamer, deputy director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute and director of the Alaska Satellite Facility, said the lack of high-volume, high-speed data service in the American Arctic, combined with other social and economic characteristics, puts it in the developing country category.
Changes are happening. In Alaska, the current rollout of the first broadband fibre network to service the state’s north coast stands to be “a major game-changer,” La Belle-Hamer said. And there and elsewhere, satellite communications, which is being aggressively deployed in Northern Norway, has similar potential.
But infrastructure alone is not a panacea, cautioned Coates. “The idea that everything’s going to be smart doesn’t mean it’s going to be favourable,” he said.
Some downsides are foreseeable — automation, e-commerce and e-banking have the potential to undermine communities by causing the loss of physical stores and banks, for example. But other impacts might be unexpected. Coates cited the example of using improved data access to expand telemedicine services for treatment of diabetes, a widespread health problem in the North. While it’s making people healthier, it also then means there is less demand for flights out of the community to see doctors farther south. While that’s good for public health and cost savings, it turns out the local airlines’ economic viability hinges on running a certain number of those flights. As they dry up, airlines must reduce service and potentially go out of business. This hurts communities in turn.
What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic
Disruption wrought by a changing climate is the catalyst or a defining factor for nearly everything on the Arctic Frontiers’ agenda. For this reason, the presentation by Martin Sommerkorn, head of conservation for the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic Program and coordinating lead author of the polar regions chapter in the IPCC’s upcoming Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, was a signature session.
His talk was a call to heightened action, based largely on the data, trends and underlying science cited in the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C published last fall. In stressing the key point that a 1.5 C planetary warming means 3 C to 4 C warming in the Arctic, he managed to both amp up the urgency while adding a helpful perspective: “If you manage to change the trajectory of the Arctic, it will change everything.”
Even the best-case scenario still means big changes are in store, however, particularly for ocean ecosystems — over and above the ice loss cited earlier. Given that many nations, and host country Norway in particular, are looking at the changes not merely as a source of concern but also a potential opportunity to expand resource and fisheries development, a couple of Sommerkorn’s specific points stood out.
The first relates to the ocean’s absorption of global CO2 emissions. According to Sommerkorn, polar seas have taken up 25 per cent of humanity’s CO2 emissions in the past 50 years. While this has done a lot to lessen the rate of atmospheric heating, it has also caused increased ocean acidification, which is “very much an Arctic problem,” he said. The chief concern is that “in the very sensitive ocean ecosystems of the Arctic…many food chains rely on calcification, which is endangered with acidification.” How dire is that? If current trends continue, he said, by 2030 the surface saturation state for argonite (an indicator of carbonate ion concentration) is expected to fall below critical thresholds necessary for many shellfish and plankton species’ shell and skeletal formation.
At the same time, increases in water temperature are causing fish species to move farther north. Aili Keskitalo of the Sámi Parliament of Norway noted this earlier in the conference for its impact on the small-scale Sami fishery. “The species we have traditionally fished are moving away from the coastline and are no longer accessible,” she said. “Mackerel are replacing them, and it is forcing us to change our diet.” However, the impact on the migrating fish may be even more severe, said Sommerkorn. “We will see thresholds crossed as species will lose their habitats as they cannot go farther north.”
The sum of these changes has implications “for regional renewable resource economies, food security, health and cultural identity of Arctic peoples and the global supply of shellfish and fish,” said Sommerkorn.
As such, it’s also a microcosm of the entire Arctic Frontiers’ agenda and experience — changes local and global, intertwined.