Arctic People and the Challenges of Environmental Change: The Role of Social Science
On 28 January 2013, the Embassy of Canada to Germany hosted an Arctic panel discussion in partnership with Ecologic Institute, Berlin. The session focused on the role of social science in better understanding and addressing environmental change in the Arctic and its impact on the inhabitants of the region. An opening presentation was given by Prof. Gail Fondahl of the University of Northern British Columbia who is also President of the International Arctic Social Sciences Association (IASSA). Following this, a panel discussion was held that was moderated by Dr. Grit Martinez of Ecologic Institute. 40 participants from German ministries, research institutes, foreign embassies, foundations, and think tanks participated in the lively discussion.
Prof. Fondahl’s presentation addressed the serious impacts of climate change upon the Arctic, such as temperature increases, melting permafrost, flooding, and the migration of flora and fauna. At the same time, she emphasised that these changes were unfolding alongside (and in interaction) with an array of demographic, economic, political, cultural and health changes. In many cases, these changes can pose more pressing short term threats to Arctic people, and comprise a much broader spectrum of challenges (and opportunities) that need consideration. To this end, Prof. Fondahl emphasised that social scientists and natural scientists both have important roles to play, independently and in tandem with each other.
Linked to these transformations and the increased attention paid to the Arctic, Prof. Fondahl noted the emergence and development of governance regimes for the region. Chief amongst these is the Arctic Council, which has moved beyond its traditionally technical nature to begin deliberating and reaching international agreements on issues more akin to traditional security (such as maritime safety).
In the following panel debate, Dr. Martinez moderated a discussion with Prof. Fondahl, as well as Sebastian Unger, Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, and Dr. Volker Rachold, International Arctic Science Committee. Dr. Martinez opened by noting that the reality of the modern Arctic stands in contrast to ‘traditional’ conceptions of pristine wilderness sometimes held by those outside the region, and both natural and social scientists must recognise that there is diverse Arctic population facing a diverse set of challenges.
The ensuing discussion with the audience covered a diverse range of topics, such as: approaches to integrating local perspectives throughout the research process, the interface between natural and social sciences in Arctic research, ways to foster knowledge sharing between social scientist conducting ethnographic studies in the circumpolar region and beyond as well as the need for appropriate communication tools in research dissemination.
The session was opened by Eric Walsh, Chargé d’Affaires a.i., Embassy of Canada, who highlighted the importance Canada places upon the Arctic, as espoused in its Northern Strategy and its upcoming Arctic Council chairmanship. He also lauded the excellent German/ Canadian cooperation in Arctic research. Closing remarks were given by R. Andreas Kraemer, Director of Ecologic Institute. He thanked the Canadian Embassy for hosting a session that placed humans at the forefront of discussion, noting the useful contributions that social sciences can make to meeting Arctic challenges, while also acknowledging the barriers and challenges of such work.