Monday, May 7, 2012

Emerging Issues in the Arctic, Part II: An Arctic Utopia?

Arctic ecosystems

As hinted at in the first post in this series, the Artic has become a battleground for competing narratives that are deeply imbedded in environmental discourse. The most heated of these contests is between the narrative of the frontier as an extractive periphery that serves the businesses and consumers at the core and the narrative of the frontier as the boundary to a romantic wilderness that warrants and/or requires preservation. I will write later this spring about how these two narratives are playing out in the ongoing litigation surrounding Shell Oil’s attempt to drill in Arctic waters off the Alaskan coast. Today, I want to flag the appearance of an emerging environmental narrative – the sustainable utopia. The Arctic has long been associated with different types of utopian visions, from a residence for ancient deities to a pristine preindustrial ecology. In the story of the sustainable utopia, the Arctic presents an opportunity to achieve an ideal balance of environment, economics, and equity, and to implement the ideal domestic and international governance structures for achieving that balance. 

This idea pervaded a recent interdisciplinary conference titled “Leadership for the Arctic.” The conference was organized by the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the Law of the Sea Institute to address the primary challenges and opportunities facing decision-makers and stakeholders in the region. I missed the first day, which included panels on Arctic science and maritime safety, as well as a keynote by Dr. Jane Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But on the second day I attended two stellar panel discussions on law and governance in the Arctic, as well as an hour-long talk by Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr., Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. (Craig Allen has posted a short summary of the conference on SSRN.) 

Perhaps the clearest utopian vision was set forth by Lisa Speer, director of the International Oceans Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council and an expert on conservation and management of marine biodiversity on the high seas. Humanity does not have a great track record on the high seas. At the moment, we are looking at enormous dead zones, collapsed and collapsing fisheries, large congregations of rogue rubber ducks, and floating islands of trash. The question Ms. Speer addressed is: Can we do better with the newly accessible Arctic Ocean?  

Ms. Speer, like President Obama and, I imagine, many readers, is an advocate for ecosystem-based management. In her presentation, Ms. Speer argued that EBM should provide the framework for environmental decision-making in the Arctic. Canada assumes the chair of the Arctic Council in 2013, and the U.S. follows in the rotating seat in 2015. Ms. Speer suggested that the United States and Canada use the four years ahead to move toward EBM in the Arctic. To accomplish this, Ms. Speer proposed three concrete steps.

  1. Identify key wildlife habitat for species and the indigenous peoples who depend on them. At the moment, decision-makers suffer from a lack of information about the ecological relationships that define and sustain Arctic wildlife. So, as a preliminary matter, there should be more research into ecologically and biologically significant areas. Once ecologically and biologically significant areas are identified, the Council should begin to make linkages among them to establish a network of protected areas.
  2. Strengthen regulation of individual industry sectors. In regards to oil and gas, Ms. Speer noted that though there have arguably been some advances in planning for oil spill response and clean-up far less has been done to establish Arctic-specific standards for oil and gas operations that would tend toward prevention. In regards to newly accessible fisheries in the Arctic Ocean, Ms. Speer asserted an immediate need for an international fisheries management regime, before industry captures the initiative and a property rights ideology that can prove politically powerful. (On April 23, the Pew Environment Group issued a letter spelling out this argument in more detail.) Ms. Speer also noted that the impacts of shipping are not limited to spills. Noise, invasive species, and air pollution are all problems that come along with marine traffic. Marine pollution in the Arctic could be limited by a special area designation under the MARPOL Convention. 
  3. The Arctic Council Experts Group on Arctic Ecosystem-Based Management should be elevated to a higher organizational status, such as a task force or working group. Ms. Speer expressed the concern that the experts group might not develop meaningful recommendations and would instead devolve into another “talk-fest.” (According to a Council press release, the experts group has met twice, including a meeting last month in Sweden, and intends to provide deliverables in advance of the next ministerial meeting in 2013.) 

The threats to the Arctic Ocean are real. As Ms. Speer suggested in her talk, we have the opportunity to manage oceans effectively from the outset, rather than waiting until the harm is done and difficult to repair. Doing so could provide a roadmap for ocean management in other areas, and it could set a precedent for a more intentional collaboration on ocean issues. But it also suggests complications that other, often parallel visions have suffered. Can the nations of the world recognize the reality of the threats, the benefits of collaboration, and the strength of consensus? Can nations recognize the relative values of competing uses and agree to a coordinated management plan that provides for sustainable development? This is a storyline cast in utopian hues. Will it prevail?  

- Mike Burger 

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