Opening the conference in Umeå, Northern Sweden, H.R.H. Crown Princess Victoria pointedly reminded its over 700 participants from 30 countries – including 6 foreign ministers, European and local policy makers, scientist as well as university students - that “to understand climate change, one must listen to those who experience it first-hand”.
That set the tone for two intensive days of high-level interventions and engaging panel debates, where climate change and its disruptive impact remained a red thread. Frequently paraphrasing the Vegas credo (“What happens in the Arctic, doesn’t stay in the Arctic”), policy makers and scientists alike evoked the powerful, yet unpredictable local-global nexus that characterises polar dynamics. Up here, the Paris 2-degree-ceiling has already been exceeded, with a 75%-reduced summer icecap as the most visible manifestation, but also with new economic opportunities looming alongside irreversible impacts on biodiversity, habitats and traditional livelihoods. And all of it, with eventual life-changing consequences for the entire planet.
The EU’s engagement in the Arctic is guided by the 2016 Strategy. As explained by Ambassador Coninsx, the strategy identifies three overall priorities: the fight against climate change, the promotion of sustainable economic development and the advancement of international cooperation, thus ensuring that the Arctic remains a low-tension area. Watch Hans-Otto Pörtner of the IPCC and Peter Winsor, Arctic Director of WWF outline the challenges in the region and how the EU can contribute to tackling these - or listen to Heidar Gudjonsson, chair of the Arctic Economic Council explaining how the private sector can help reconcile the twin-objectives of sustainable development and economic growth.
Day 2 of the conference was dedicated to the Arctic Indigenous People’s Dialogue, a unique platform bringing together representatives of the primarily Saami communities and EU policy makers. Lapland was a “cross-border region”, long before that term was coined in EU structural programmes. Through the centuries local nomadic peoples have followed the reindeer herds and lived in harmony with the rough natural environment, regardless of country borders. However, as this environment is rapidly becoming “less natural” – as a result of climate change - these livelihoods are put at stake, and the local population must rapidly adapt to the evolving conditions, often subject to diverging national regulatory regimes. This includes exploring the new business opportunities that a milder climate may enable, whilst ensuring that economic activity is pursued in respect of sustainability. Consequently, a recurrent theme in the Dialogue was the importance of factoring in traditional and indigenous knowledge in modern day policy and decision making. Anders Oskal of the World Reindeer Herders Association gave this account of the challenges facing the local populations.
As the Forum was coming to a close, and delegations were starting their homebound journeys, the first pristine snowflakes of the season began falling on Umeå. It seemed a suitable farewell from nature, reminding us about the omnipresent and ever-changing Arctic climate - and about the long, winding road ahead, to securing a sustainable future for the Arctic and its peoples.