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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Responding to the impacts of global change in the North

3rd Open Meeting of the Northern Research Forum

Statement by Ambassador Gunnar Pálsson
Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials

15 September 2004

Your Excellency, Governor General Clarkson,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour for me to be invited to address you here today in my capacity as Chairman of the Senior Arctic Officials. It is also a particular pleasure to find oneself in the traditional territory of the Dene, one of the aboriginal peoples of the North, represented at the Arctic Council by the Arctic Athabaskan Council.

Any traveller making the long trek from Reykjavík to Yellowknife is likely to be impressed by the whopping distances that separate those two circumpolar destinations. Yet, he has no sooner reached this dynamic outpost of the North, than he is made aware that the Arctic is so much more than a vast expanse of geographic space. He is reminded that the Arctic is also a community - extending across national borders - where people of different backgrounds have much in common and share many of the same concerns.

It is in promoting that shared sense of belonging among the residents of the North that the Arctic Council and the Northern Research Forum, two fora of circumpolar reach - one intergovernmental, the other devoted to research - are now joining hands. As they do so, they are fortunate to have the support of distinguished personalities like Governor General Clarkson, who, on her visits abroad, including a memorable visit to Iceland last year, has inspired so much interest in circumpolar cooperation.

Global change is affecting the North

The theme of this 3rd meeting of the Northern Research Forum is particularly apt. Rapid and far-reaching changes, driven by economic and technological forces, are sweeping across the globe. Whether we think of such changes in terms of globalization or some other, more modest organizing principle, there can be no question that we are witness to a complicated process of homogenization, cultural, financial and economic, spreading to the farthest corners of the globe.

Global change is affecting the North in a variety of ways. For many, it spells progress, including new economic opportunities, empowerment through technological innovation and improved access to national centers of learning and power. For others, there is also a downside. The benefits that come with growing economic activity in the North do not always accrue to residents of the North themselves. Access works in both directions, at times pulling the best and the brightest away from sparsely populated areas. There are growing risks to a sensitive Arctic environment and traditional cultures, including indigenous languages, are in many instances fighting to survive.

Whether we are inclined to approve of global change or not, it would be wrong to view the relationship between the North and the rest of the world exclusively in terms of periphery and center. In the old times, world atlases often showed Northern regions receding from view at the edges. Such maps no longer represent accurately - if they ever did - what we know about the Arctic.

Consider first the environmental dimension. As we study the Arctic, we are appreciating more and more the complex interlinkages between the Arctic and the rest of the world from the point of view of biology and ecology. Migrating birds link North and South. The engine of the ocean conveyor belt that distributes the earth's heat can be observed in the North Atlantic. From nature?s point of view, the Arctic was always an integral part of the mainstream. It was globalized long before the age of globalization.

Recently, more evidence is coming to light underscoring the global significance of the Arctic. Science shows long-range transboundary pollution, originating as far away as Southeast Asia, beginning to accumulate in the Arctic food-web. In the Arctic, we are studying how mercury can affect human health in the rest of the world. A different example comes from the area of climate change. The Arctic is experiencing some of the most rapid and severe climate change on earth. What consequences will rising sea-levels due to melting sea ice have for the rest of the world? Again, we are looking to the Arctic for clues.

In the late sixteenth century, the Flemish map-maker Mercator produced a map showing Greenland the size of Africa. In reality, the African landmass is fourteen times the size of Greenland. One is tempted to think that the Flemish genius was anticipating something of what we now know about the importance of the Arctic for the earth?s ecology.

A role for the Arctic Council

But the Arctic is more than environment. It is home to people, some four million of them, including many culturally distinct communities. How should the residents of the Arctic themselves be tackling global change?

We would do well to observe that Arctic residents have and will probably continue to manage quite well in the absence of advice from international conference-goers. Through the ages, they have shown remarkable ability to adapt to change. Nevertheless, there is a role for government and inter-governmental cooperation, just as there is a role for the wider science and research communities. The work of the Arctic Council, including the programme of the Icelandic Chairmanship, exemplifies at least one type of human responses to global change in the North.

The Arctic Council, as everyone here knows, is rooted in cooperation on environmental issues. Some of the best work of the Arctic Council has been done in this area, including the monitoring and assessment of pollution, conservation of flora and fauna and now the eagerly awaited Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), to be released in November.

All those studies indicate that the Arctic remains a relatively clean environment, although pressure is mounting as a result of long-range pollution and economic activity, including shipping and the hydrocarbon industry. When combined with the impact of climate change, such pressure is already affecting the lives and the livelihoods of the people of the region in a number of different ways.

If only for this reason, time has come to devote more attention to the social, economic and cultural life of the Arctic region. We must address both sides of the equation, nature and society, to arrive at a balanced notion of sustainable Arctic development. In so doing, we must look to exploiting available opportunities, as well as to managing risks. Last, but not least, we need to make sure that Arctic concerns are adequately plugged into global agendas.

Those are precisely the themes that have guided the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council over the past two years, at least. We have sought to put them into practice in three different ways:

Firstly, focus has been put on increased research cooperation. Confronted as they are with changes in the environment, economy and society, Arctic residents must be equipped with the necessary means to adapt to those changes and to gain better control of their external conditions. Knowledge, research and technology are key to this endeavour.

To advance the goals of the Arctic Council in this respect, the annual Arctic Science Summit Week was hosted in Reykjavík in April of this year. The event brought together a large part of the Arctic science community. During one of their sessions, scientists devoted special attention to the issue of adapting to climate change, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment and the third International Polar Year (IPY), set for 2007-2008.

The full involvement of science, research and education authorities of the Arctic Council member states is obviously instrumental for enhanced cooperation in those fields. Therefore, a first meeting of education and science Ministers of the Arctic Council member states was organized in June of this year. Ministers and other representatives from the Arctic Council Member States reaffirmed, among other things, that education and research are essential tools in building capacity in Arctic communities to deal with current challenges and welcomed the role of the Northern Research Forum in promoting dialogue among members of the research community.

Secondly, information and telecommunication technology (ICT) in the Arctic has been highlighted, with the overall aim of focusing on how ICT can be used to improve the living conditions of Arctic residents.

In October last year, an international ICT-conference devoted to distance education and telemedicine in the Arctic, was organized in the town of Akureyri. As a result of the conference, several promising projects and project proposals are being pursued through a recently established Arctic Council ICT network (ICTN). As iswidely recognised, improvements in distance education, in particular, can have multiple benefits, among other things through widening the access of students to academic programmes, strengthening the use of indigenous languages and providing flexibility for women to pursue their education while attending to family responsibilities, if they so desire.

Thirdly, there is the Arctic Human Development Report (AHDR), to be completed by the time of the Ministerial meeting in Iceland on 24 November 2004. Launched under Iceland?s lead in Inari two years ago, this will be a first attempt to provide an extensive overview of human conditions in the Arctic as a whole. As such, the report should help give sustainable development in the region a human face and provide a more solid ground for future work devoted to the living conditions of the people of the region.

Furthermore, the AHDR should be a welcome addition to the curriculum of academic bodies like the University of the Arctic, opening up many new avenues of research, cooperation and networking in the future.

Need to work with others

The areas of research, ICT and Arctic human development, have been the three pillars of the current Chairmanship programme in the Arctic Council. They are also, as pointed out above, one of the means by which the Arctic Council can respond to the impact of global change in the North. But we are obviously not alone. Aside from the members of the Arctic Council, numerous states, national and international bodies, are involved in Arctic environmental, social and economic research. All those efforts serve to deepen our understanding and increase our chances of successfully managing our common future in the Arctic.

The International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) has accomplished a great deal in encouraging and facilitating Arctic research. The Arctic Council has maintained good relations with the IASC, not least on the ACIA, another project that, in the coming years, should provide fertile ground for increased cooperation and research.

The Second International Conference on Arctic Research Planning (ICARP II) is taking place in a year?s time. ICARP II will formulate plans regarding major research themes that are important for the future of the Arctic in the context of a changing world. In addition, the third International Polar Year will provide numerous possibilities in the areas of Arctic science and research. In this connection, it will be particularly important to ensure that the economic and social sciences are duly taken into account. Efforts to involve the Arctic Council as much as possible in the preparations for the IPY are seen as key to our goal of improving transparency and coordination between governments and the science community.

It would be impossible to conclude, without also noting the significant contribution of the Northern Research Forum, a valued observer in the Arctic Council. The theme of human responses to changes affecting the North has been a major concern of Arctic Council members in recent years. In tackling that theme this week, the Northern Research Forum is doing its part to foster the sense of common destiny required in order for Arctic residents to make the crossing from words to action. It is not least for that reason that I am particularly grateful for having been given the opportunity to participate in your panel today.


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