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Arctic Yearbook 2012
The Arctic Environment – From Low to High Politics
The Arctic in the Global Context
As noted by Young (2012), Arctic change is closely related to global environmental change and to
globalization. Historically, also, the political climate in the Arctic has often been closely linked to
global politics (Chaturvedi, 2000). Therefore to understand the conditions that generate the region’s
environmental politics requires a closer look at the global political context. Since the 1980s, this
context has changed in ways that may indicate a shift toward treating the environment as an arena for
high politics.
The region-building period in the Arctic (1987-1996) coincided with high hopes about global
environmental governance, and indeed for multilateralism in general, following the end of the Cold
War. A case in point was the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro
in 1992, and the optimism that the Rio agenda created. Several international environmental
conventions were signed at the Rio conference, including the UN Framework Convention on
Climate Change and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which are most relevant for the
Arctic. The rhetoric of sustainable development held the promise that the different interests of the
global North and global South could be bridged, but in reality many of the conflicts remained
(Linnér & Jacob, 2005).
Moreover, as time moved on it became increasingly clear that it would be difficult to reach the high
goals of halting dangerous anthropogenic climate change and biodiversity loss. Conflicting interests
has caused considerable difficulties in implementing these conventions. In international biodiversity
governance, issues of economic rights to biological resources were for a long time a major stumbling
block (McGraw, 2002), and it was only recently that some tricky issues of access and benefit sharing
have been resolved. In the climate regime, lack of US participation in the Kyoto Protocol has
stymied progress since 1997. The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference to
reach agreement on continuing the Kyoto Protocol further exacerbated the difficulties. Furthermore,
in 2011 Canada announced that it would leave the Protocol. The 2012 United Nations Conference
on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) did not offer much hope that national interests could be
bridged in agreeing on what sustainable development means. Moreover, dependence on fossil fuel
remains strong, both globally and in many Arctic countries.
It would probably be too optimistic to assume that the Arctic would provide a more likely setting for
strong environmental agreements, especially given that several Arctic states have a strong national
interest in fossil fuels, both in relation to national economies and national energy security. The