Arctic Change: A Different Kind of Lesson

By Tahnee Prior & Gosia Smieszek

In the last week of August, the air was crisp, but the sun shone high over the final days of an unseasonably cold summer in Rovaniemi in northern Finland. With great foresight of potential new security and governance challenges — particularly in the context of global environmental change — Dr. Annika Nilsson from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) brought together a group of bright and kind young minds — perhaps our planet’s future leaders — to brainstorm existing and possible linkages between the Arctic and global change. This group of fifteen young (20–35) scholars and activists from five continents tucked away in the glass tunnel of Arktikum, a science museum and Arctic research center, to listen and learn from senior Arctic scientists about everyday adaptation in the Barents region, reindeer herding in Arctic Russia, and marine governance in the circumpolar north.

We were two of the attending scholars. Spending much of our time bouncing between Arctic conferences, workshops, and research centers for our doctoral and professional work — Gosia focusing on science-policy interface, and Tahnee focusing on environmental governance — we have become fluent in many of the basic conclusions found in these spaces: the Arctic is our canary in the coalmine; what happens in the Arctic does not necessarily stay in the Arctic (and vice versa); and the rest of the world has much it can learn from existing governance approaches in the North. In that sense, our perspective differed from those of many other participants coming from places as distant from the Arctic as Australia, Brazil, Ghana, India, Israel, and Malta and taking early steps in Arctic affairs. In the same vein, we realized our prior knowledge and experiences had made us closed-minded, even inflexible, in thinking that we had come out of these two intensive days with similar conclusions to the ones we have heard before. As it turned out, we were wrong.

Here are three of our key takeaways:

1. Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Writing a doctoral dissertation can often make us feel like we have been staring at a single tree for too long: our readings, writings, and conversations all focus on one issue area. After a while, we begin to lose perspective, losing sight of the forest. If your work focuses mostly or exclusively on the Arctic, as in our case, it probably means that most of the things you read and the events and conferences you attend revolve around Arctic affairs. As a consequence, you — like us — might lose sight of the big picture; of the challenges faced by people(s) and ecosystems in other parts of the world which are often quite similar to those we study and aim to solve in the Arctic. You may wonder, however: what is wrong with focusing on one area, such as the Arctic? After all, we live in a world where specialization is rewarded with degrees, accolades, and project funding. While this is certainly true to some extent, it also means that it is increasingly difficult for researchers, like us, to account for the interconnectedness of the Arctic with the rest of the world and to stay open to experiences and lessons coming from other regions of the planet. Yes, the Arctic is our canary in the coalmine. It does not mean, though, that we should not listen to and learn from the stories of communities living in small island states dependent on fisheries or study governance practices for mineral extraction in lands of indigenous peoples in southern latitudes. After all, drawing from this breadth of experience is our best chance to respond to the challenges of sustainable development in the Arctic, as elsewhere.

2. Today’s World Looks like Our Group

Despite its complexity and the vast differences found between and within Arctic communities, meetings surrounding the past, present, and future of the Arctic remain fairly homogenous. However, in a deeply interlinked world — where what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic, and what happens in the rest of the world can have significant implications for the circumpolar North — we are more likely to find ourselves tackling challenges in more diverse groups.

The world will look, and already looks, like our group gathered over these two days at the Arktikum building: young people from different corners of the world and of different backgrounds coming together to learn about the Arctic, bringing their invaluable perspectives, insights, and experiences to the table.

Not only should we appreciate and cherish their openness, interest, and curiosity to learn about the circumpolar North, but we should also be more aware of what we bring to those exchanges — and think through what others may learn from us. This brings us to the last point, namely:

3. NOT Everything Is About Us

How many times have you gone to meetings or conferences thinking about them purely in terms of your own personal takeaways? It is something we have all been guilty of at one point or another. What if we reversed this perspective and thought more in terms of what others can learn from us? What are our contributions to the discussion? Or, how ready are we to stay engaged when we hear things that we think we have heard before? Over the course of this workshop, we learned that it is easy for those of us who are steeped in Arctic discussions to write off meetings in which seemingly basic historical facts, climate models, and governance challenges are rehashed. The unexpected gem, however, comes when your new colleagues from Ghana or Brazil intently listen, recognize patterns (near-instantly!), and share them with you; and you are left enriched with their lessons and insights. As it turned out for both of us, it is not always about what you take away, but also about what you bring to the table and in what manner.

It is fair to say the above lessons were unexpected learnings for us from our two days spent discussing “Arctic Change — Global Challenge”. Yet in many ways, we consider those lessons far more important for our own work and professional development than if we had focused solely on Arctic facts and information. Keeping the bigger picture in mind, connecting with people from other parts of the world as distant from the Arctic as Australia and Brazil, making conscious decisions on what we bring to the table, and reflecting on how we share our knowledge with others while staying attuned to theirs was our true learning experience.

We are grateful to the organizers and the participants of the workshop “Arctic Change — Global Challenge” for our experience, supported by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (Mistra); the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF); the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, and the project on Arctic Governance and the Question of Fit in a Globalized World funded by the Swedish Research Council, Formas.

All photos courtesy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.