Why the future of the Arctic matters

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Today more than ever before, the circumpolar region is integrated into the international system. Although the North has always been connected to the rest of the world through trade networks and migratory routes, globalisation and climate change have created unprecedented connectivity through communication systems, global markets and environmental cooperation.

But the Arctic is not just connected globally – it has quickly moved from the periphery to the world’s centre stage and, as climate change takes effect, it looks likely to stay there.

However, despite meaningful moves away from colonial policies, the globalised narrative of the North is still an extractive one. Political rhetoric, business forecasts, and climate science all measure the Arctic’s significance in terms of benefits for the rest of the world. Because of its ecological vulnerability, the region is often called the canary in the coalmine for climate change. What happens in the Arctic in the years to come will be an early indicator of the future environmental changes for the rest of the Earth.

What’s more, climate change consequences like rising sea levels that are deemed unacceptable for the developed south are not only tolerated in the Arctic, but capitalised on. Anticipated open waters from climate change have prompted countries to highlight the importance of their national Arctic territory for mineral development, shipping routes and energy security for economic growth.

Rather than concentrate global attention on what can be extracted from a melting Arctic, the international community should focus on the new avenues globalisation has created for investment in and knowledge exchange with Alaska. Unstable markets and high cost of production provide policymakers in Juneau and US with the chance to reformulate how decisions on infrastructure investment are made – the chance to invest in livable, sustainable places rather than resource rush settlements.

Smart growth

Investing in complete streets and smart growth principles are one key way to take advantage of that opportunity. Smart growth is a type of community planning that encourages compact, walkable, and transit-oriented development. It focuses on sustainability and creating a unique sense of place through expanding the range of transportation, employment and housing choices; promote public health, and preserve and enhance local identity and culture. Through policy regulations like zoning ordinances, local growth boundaries, shared development rights, and environmental assessments, smart growth increases family income and wealth; provides safe walking routes for children; stimulates economic activity; and fosters livable, healthy places for diverse communities.

Such policies capitalise on globalisation’s decentralisation of political power; utilise today’s international communication and information systems; and support the rich, diverse cultural perspectives of Arctic residents. Smart growth provides the physical infrastructure to increase productivity and innovation, to develop a thriving local economy and to take advantage of access to global markets.

In a way, the Arctic is inevitably the world’s distant early warning line for climate change. The North Pole, along with other geographies like small island nations in the Pacific, will be the first and potentially hardest hit by ecological shifts and weather pattern variations. But unlike the original Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line which consisted of a series of radar stations in the Arctic region warning of impending Soviet invasion, national and international policymakers today must think beyond constructing expensive, isolated stations that provide little to Arctic peoples but security to the security of the Western bloc of the world. Investing in place means moving beyond the dominating narratives of an extractive Arctic globalisation from a southern perspective. Investing in place means investing in local infrastructure that foster economically, environmentally, and culturally thriving communities for the ‘northerners of the 21st Century’ who live there.

*Victoria Herrmann [2014] is a Research Associate at The Arctic Institute, doing a PhD in Polar Studies. To find out more about her analysis of the Arctic Human Development Report II: Regional Processes and Global Linkages report at thearcticinstitute.org.

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