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Arctic Yearbook 2012
25 Years of Arctic Environmental Agency: Changing Issues and Power Relations
biological diversity, encompassing its marine, terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems with endemic and
migratory species, which depend upon the Arctic environment, including its ice on land and sea, its
tundra, and permafrost peat land.
During the last 25 years the Arctic has moved from being a “policy object” – i.e., an object of
resource extraction and environmental changes, which depend upon decisions and actions from
outside the region – to a transnational agent engaged in international policy-making with its own
regional voice. Indeed, the circumpolar North has increasingly affirmed itself as a homeland, with its
own resident population and with indigenous communities who affirm their own concerns and their
rights for self-determination and self-governance (Heininen & Southcott, 2010). Arctic agency has
been effective at changing its situation in the world’s geopolitical and environmental representations.
The map of the Northern polar cap with the large but receding Greenland ice shield and the Arctic
has become widely known, overshadowing somewhat the image of the Magellan map, where the
Arctic was barely outlined and widely spread out, at the plan’s furthest top margin. To be in the
focus of the world’s eye, actors from within the Arctic region and outside have been framing issues,
mobilizing and shaping institutional processes.
In the first section, we will define the four main phases in changing perceptions about environmental
issues concerning the Arctic over the past 25 years, i.e., (1) the Arctic during the Cold War, (2) the
Arctic at the end of the Cold War, (3) the Arctic after the 1992 UN Conference on Sustainable
Development, and (4) the Arctic in the first decade of the 21
century. For each of these phases, we
identify, in a second section, the actors who have been most influential in shaping Arctic-related
environmental policies. In the third section we analyze the power relations among the actors over the
past 25 years. The conclusion will provide some insights for institutional transformations needed to
face the profound environmental changes the Arctic, in interaction with global dynamics, is already
and increasingly will be experiencing.
Indeed, the current literature on the Arctic environment is lacking a critical analysis of the agents and
institutional processes that are needed to stem the causes and mitigate the consequences of Arctic
environmental degradation. Our paper proposes to take a historical social agency perspective in
order to identify and understand the actors that have shaped Arctic institutions so far and those who
will address Arctic environmental change in the future. Analyzing the various governmental, non-
governmental and corporate actors’ interests, strategies, and dynamic power relations explains, we
claim, how issues are defined, prioritized, or discarded. By considering the social agency behind the