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Annika E. Nilsson is Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute, Sweden.
The Arctic Environment – From Low to High Politics
Annika E. Nilsson
Environmental issues have been central in giving the Arctic a distinct regional voice and making the region a global
concern. Climate change is a case in point, but long-range transport of persistent pollutants and biodiversity have also
played important roles. This article places the global framing of the Arctic environment in the context of the growth of
global environmental politics that has occurred in parallel with the emergence of the Arctic’s current international
governance structure. It specifically addresses how Arctic environmental concerns have been framed in relation to more
overarching goals of sustainable development, and in relation to security. By looking at past and current ‘politics of
scale’, the article discusses what is realistic to expect from pan-Arctic environmental governance, and how the emerging
global and regional geopolitics may affect the environmental domain. When the current political cooperation started in
the Arctic in the 1990s, the environment was an area of ‘low politics’ suitable for new cooperative ventures – then
between the East and West. Since then, global environmental governance has become ‘high politics’ and is increasingly
linked to resource politics and global markets. This development is likely to also affect the Arctic.
One of the most striking trends in Arctic politics in recent years is the increasing global interest in
the region. Countries far from the polar region have applied for observer status in the Arctic
Council, and the European Union and countries such as China and India have made large
investments in Arctic research (Chaturvedi, 2012; Jakobson, 2010). The International Polar Year of
2007–2008, which was formally concluded at the IPY Science to Action conference in Montreal in
2012, included researchers, local observers, educators, students, and support personnel from more
than 60 nations (Krupnik et al., 2011).
While some of the global interest in the Arctic is stimulated by new commercial opportunities related
to resources and shipping, the environment has also played a major role in framing the Arctic as a
global concern. Moreover, the environment has been central in defining the Arctic as a region with
its own voice in international environmental governance (Nilsson, 2012). This article discusses some
of the implications of the Arctic environment as a global concern, based on the notion of ‘politics of
scale’, with attention to how the political use of the environment has shifted over time. The term