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Cooperation in the Arctic depends on expectations, says PhD researcher


A new study by Malmö University researcher Sandra Engstrand looks at how countries interact and negotiate when it comes to environmental issues in the Arctic.

The Arctic region is facing massive environmental challenges due to climate change, such as melting glaciers and increased acidity in ocean water. At the same time, these changes open up new commercial opportunities like tourism, fishing, oil and gas exploration, and a new shipping route, the so-called Northern Sea Route.

In her thesis, titled State learning and role playing, Sandra Engstrand explores how countries learn about environmental norms through cooperation. Her research, which is also affiliated with Lund University, focuses on the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum comprised of eight member states: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.

“The Arctic is a place where interests collide. With increased commercial activity in the region comes a greater need for environmental protection. However, large sections of the Arctic fall under state jurisdiction. With regard to the Arctic Council, this means that issues like oil spill prevention are primarily about exchanging safety information, rather than discussing how to reduce extraction,” Engstrand explains.

State learning and role playing

By analysing more than 15 years’ worth of notes from meetings between Senior Arctic Officials in the Arctic Council, as well as conducting interviews with participants in specific negotiations, Engstrand has examined the respective countries' role within the organisation.

“Through social interaction, member states develop their own role, learning through self-reflection and by considering the expectations of others. You could say that these countries initially learn about their own social position in this dynamic, rather than about climate change itself,” Engstrand says.

One hopeful conclusion that Engstrand draws in her study is that Arctic cooperation is a top priority for all the council’s member states.

“Since the issue at hand affects the states’ territories — economically but also socially and culturally — they are prepared to preserve and protect the region,” she says.

"Their roles as member states are developed and adapted gradually, which allows space for learning to accept increased environmental protection. On the other hand, it’s vital that environmental protection is established as an important goal from the get-go. Moreover, countries need to trust and expect each other to work well as collaborative partners.”

Text: Daniel Harju

Last updated by Adrian Grist