CLIMATE CHANGE IN ARCTIC:
DISASTER OR OPPORTUNITY FOR CANADA’S NORTH?
Change is key to understanding political, economic, social, cultural and, more recently, environmental developments. Contextualized, understanding change in given systems helps inform not only management processes but, more important, response and, should needs arise, mitigation measures. Understandably, climate change has come front and center of global discussions in more recent years. Informed by a variety of political, economic, social, cultural and, of course, physical environment opportunities and challenges, climate change is perhaps world’s most pressing issue. The approach to climate change remains, however, largely intermittent, driven primarily by passing expressions of climate change (e.g. natural disasters, rising temperatures, and disappearing species), not by consistent – and concerted – efforts for understanding, let alone proper management. The complexity of climate change is perhaps best captured in Canada’s North.
For half a century, Canada’s North has been experiencing dramatic ecological shifts. Triggered by climate change effects, human and natural habitats are under growing existential threats in Canada’s vast most northern territories. From a conventional perspective, undergoing changes in Canada’s North represent challenges only to all stakeholders, particularly wild and marine life, experiencing such changes. From a more innovative perspective, however, Canada’s North, despite all challenges, involves unprecedented opportunities promising new horizons of international cooperation, more public-private partnerships, wider development (political, economic, and social) for Aboriginal communities, and not least, radically changed industries, particularly in oil, gas, shipment, fishery and hospitality. To understand Canada’s North, accordingly, opportunities and challenges should inform current and future research and development efforts. That is, Canada’s North, just as all early underdeveloped areas, should be understood not only in a context of risk, particularly climate change, but, more important, in a parallel, if not overlapping, context of risk management or opportunities.
Canada’s North Opportunities and Challenges
The cryosphere (i.e. permafrost, sea ice, lake ice, and snow) changes brought about by climate change in Canada’s North is well document in literature (Frugal and Prowse 2008) For one, biodiversity shifts and increasing unavailability and inaccessibility of resources as well as loss of established, native ways of life (Frugal and Prowse) are most common concerns and risks cited as a result of climate change in Canada’s North. Moreover, rapidly changing natural environments, aggravated by further destabilization of wild and marine life, are shown to pose growing risks for native communities, particularly in Nunavut, including, most notably, inability to provide emergency response due to remoteness, on one hand, and inaccessibility to medical care and response, on another hand (Clark and Ford 2017) This is not to mention, of course, confirmed cases of water contamination due to changing nature of stable platforms of permafrost responsible for pond and lake retention (Frugal and Prowse). In so understanding Canada’s North, most discussions are focused on damages and, as a consequence, means to recover and/or mitigate losses. The growing global awareness of climate changes issues, moreover, combined by, or resulting in, growing pressures on governments and private companies, particularly in oil and exploration industry, is, moreover, making a case for a dystopian situation in Canada’s North. These are, understandably, legitimate concerns confirmed by a growing body of research over decades. Little attention is starting, however, to emerge about how a changing Northern Canada could be an asset, not just a liability. That is, whilst climate change challenges are fairly acceptable – and obvious – dismissal of potential opportunities, perhaps largely amplified by citing economic exploitation and political manipulation, causes, one strongly believes, more damage.
Canada’s North has, for millennia, been a natural preserve maintained as is, as if considering new emerging opportunities represents a serious breach of contract. Political demagoguery and environmental hyperactivity aside, Canada’s North offers, and is most likely to continue to do for long decades ahead, unprecedented development opportunities along several political, economic, cultural, and environmental lines.
Politically, Canada’s North, more developed, is apt to bring wider political gains. Specifically, Canada’s North has historically been – and remains to be – inhabited by Aboriginals, only so sparsely. The dispersion of Canadians, Aboriginal or not, weakens country’s political unity and makes a case, under political pressure and secession pressures, for disunity. Given current state of affairs, Canadian sparse demographic makeup is not limited along Aboriginal-Non-Aboriginal lines only but cuts across native populations living in multiplicities of differential infrastructure – making a case for even differential development opportunities (Frugal and Prowse, 111) The undergoing climate changes in Canada’s North could, however, offer a rare opportunity to redesign current infrastructure – and, for that matter political and economic makeup and structure – such as to synergize local potentials.
Economically, Canada’s North offers admittedly a vast economic opportunity. In contrast to a negative discourse informed by dire climate changes, Canada’s North is shown to offer new, unprecedented opportunities a broad range of industries including, primarily, oil, gas, fishery (Lahn and Emmerson 2012), and shipping (Ng et al. 2018). Understandably, projected economic gains are set against risks, predictable and unpredictable, making risk management and further research of Canada’s North more urgent.
The mosaic of regulations and governments in the Arctic creates a multi-jurisdictional challenge for investment and operations in the Arctic. Working through the Arctic Council to promote high and common regulations for Arctic economic activity is key. Both domestic legislation and international agreements should adopt a safety-case analysis rather than a prescriptive approach to risk management. States should provide strong and transparent oversight through appropriate government agencies, aligning risks and incentives for private companies with the broader public interest, and ensuring that private economic interests do not overcome legitimate public concerns. ( Lahn and Emmerson, 53)
Thus, international collaboration is critical to help inform any present or future development efforts.
Culturally, Canada’s North is still uncharted territory. Granted more recent gains, Aboriginals and First Nations are largely not integrated into Canada’s core political, economic and cultural discourse. The cultural and geographical sparsity in Canada’s North is, as noted, a ready recipe for political fragmentation. Instead, opportunities, know or unknown, in Canada’s North are not only apt to consolidate political and economic opportunities in more optimized ways (by making use of unused natural and human resources) but to integrate native populations in deeper and healthier ways into Canada’s cultural fabric.
Environmentally, Canada’s North, redesigned, offers promising, more innovative ways to contain damages to human, natural, wild and marine lives. By closing knowledge gaps about Canada’s North, major stakeholders, including but not limited to governments, research institutes, non-governmental organizations and businesses, can help minimize climate change risks and, more important, ensure development is informed by accurate, sensible and ecologically-defined limits ( Lahn and Emmerson, 10).
Canada’s North should be discussed in a more balanced manner beyond a mere either/or dichotomy. Given growing climate change challenges in Canada’s North, opportunities should not be dismissed and should be rationally considered. Unless knowledge gaps about Canada’s North are adequately narrowed, let alone closed, discussions about challenges or opportunities will fall short of capturing area’s full range of risks and potentials. If anything, international collaboration, more scientific research, and cultural/social adaption are apt to reverse a historical record of Canada’s North as a known unknown.