As countries continue to rely on dwindling oil and gas reserves to serve their energy needs, conversation and debate around the Arctic’s icy waters are heating up.
In March, a number of academics, policymakers and activists convened at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to explore political, economic and environmental issues related to the Arctic.
“Who ‘Owns’ The Arctic?: An International and Interdisciplinary Conference” was hosted by the UNC Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies (CSEEES) in conjunction with the Canadian Studies Center at Duke University and in partnership with the Government of Canada. The conference explored central topics such as relations between Arctic nations and how accelerating climate change is altering the political and economic relationships between these nations.
Mary Simon, who leads the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), a national organization that represents Inuit from several of Canada’s Northwest Territories, opened the conference with a discussion of the role of the indigenous Inuit community in the Arctic. Simon’s discussion directed attention to issues of Inuit ownership and Inuit response to external stakeholders.
Michael Byers, University of British Columbia professor and author of “Who Owns the Arctic?” (Douglas & McIntyre, 2009), next explored the implications of competing territorial disputes and potential legal conflict as countries lay claim to undiscovered sea beds.
Finally, Pavel Baev, research professor at the Peace Research Institute Olso in Norway and a Russian national, offered insight into his home country’s approach to Arctic policy. Russia, Baev argued, views the region as a critical theater for its military advancement and the bolstering of its political power.
The second conference session examined the region through the lens of security, energy and climate change. Jose Antonio Rial, a UNC professor of geophysics and climatology and the session’s moderator, warned that if global climate change continues at the current rate, the world can expect sea levels to rise to a level that he called “devastating.”
Panelists Commander Tony Miller, deputy director of the U.S. Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change, and Brian Van Pay of the U.S. Department of State, stressed the increasing importance of intergovernmental cooperation as Arctic nations continue to define boundaries by claiming ownership of underwater continental shelves. Susan Crate, a professor at George Mason University, concluded the session by encouraging attendees to consider an anthropological view on climate change’s impact on Arctic inhabitants and how they understand their natural environment.
The third and final session of the conference, with panelists Simon, Byers, Baev and Creighton University professor Elizabeth Elliot-Meisel, addressed the past, present and projected future of international cooperation in the Arctic. Elliot-Meisel discussed Arctic relations during the Cold War, arguing that throughout the period, the United States’ primary focus was in maintaining a militaristic presence in the Arctic, while Canada’s claims to Arctic sovereignty were a less important concern. But, Byers explained, recent years have seen marked improvements in the respect accorded to Inuit peoples in Arctic matters and in intergovernmental efforts to avoid conflict.
The evening concluded with a special artistic presentation highlighting the Norwegian Arctic. Brooks de Wetter-Smith, UNC’s James Gordon Hanes Distinguished Professor of Music, presented video, photos, and nature sounds along with a live flute performance inspired by his travels in the world’s northernmost climes.
Photo by Brooks de Wetter-Smith