Arctic Futures? Climate, Geopolitics, and Local Realities

By: Olga Ulturgasheva, University of Manchester and Barbara Bodenhorn, University of Cambridge

The Anthropology, Weather and Climate Change 2016 conference was held by the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, 27-28 May 2016. One the many conference panels was convened by Olga Ulturgasheva, University of Manchester and Barbara Bodenhorn, University of Cambridge and titled "Northern Futures? Climate, Geopolitics, and Local Realities." This panel considered the intersections between environmental conditions, geopolitical tensions, and local innovative reactions characterising the Arctic in the early 21st century. Siberian and Alaskan participation was supported by the Arctic Social Sciences Program of the National Science Foundation. Each of the three sessions was framed by a report from places vulnerable to environmental, political, and socio-economic upheavals, given by people who live in—and whose ancestors lived in—the country about which they were talking. These were stories of calamity, but not of victimhood.

In session one, Rachel Edwardson, Iñupiaq film-maker, examined the destructive impact of "silo thinking" at the community level, where questions about how to protect the future of whaling—and subsistence more generally—and the future(s) of non-renewable resource development are bitterly contested within families and across local institutions. These questions simultaneously reflect local politics, national and international economics, and global processes. Edwardson began with a description of a public hearing that Federal officials held on new proposals to open up areas of the Arctic Ocean to exploration, only weeks after Shell had withdrawn their intentions to launch such an endeavour. "Why were only three Iñupiat there?'" she asked about the hearings. The timing of these unannounced public hearings coincided with the day that all whaling captains and their crews attended a blessing ceremony for the up-coming spring whaling season. An innocent miscalculation? Perhaps not.

Edwardson noted that if the spirits of both whales and humans reincarnate, then her grandchildren may well eat of the same whale as her own grandparents. Such an awareness and explicit valuing of intergenerational sharing poses a different kind of understanding of responsible action than what underpins institutions organized to realize profit in the short term. Edwardson herself recognized the extent to which local Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) corporations have often used the funds they gain through their participation in global economic ventures for the benefit of their Iñupiaq shareholders: education, medical services, and general infrastructure. She appreciated this without accepting them as justification to pursue policies that seem to threaten the core of Iñupiaq lifeways. "Our children, and our children's children, need to have the chance to make choices about their lives," she asserted. "We do not have the right to take that from them." Ending on a hopeful note, Edwardson emphasised the success of whaling this spring, despite thinning ice, and of the arrival of new Iñupiaq babies—reminding us that there is a cycle and that we have faced much harder challenges than those that confront us today.

Two further presentations offered alternative ways of considering voice and representation. By exploring the coverage of the terms "Arctic", "oil", "climate", and "Indigenous" as journalistic categories, Candis Callison analyzed environmental news coverage in international, national, and regional press from 2013-14 with a brief nod to tweets as they circulated through the international climate change summit COP21. Not surprisingly, the more global the view, the less we find local voices, perspectives, and disparate forms of knowledge included in the analysis. More surprisingly, given the extent to which the Arctic is considered a planetary driver, it often fades from analytical view. Tweets connecting "The Arctic" to environmental changes decreased as the international climate change summit COP21 progressed, she noted, and did not figure at all in the final Paris agreement. The Arctic may be a planetary driver of environmental process, but the nation-states that encircle the Arctic are heavily interested in the non-renewable resources to be had in the present, and in an ice-free future.

Melting glacier in Upper Verkhoyanie mountains, Northeast Siberia. Image courtesy of Olga Ulturgasheva.Melting glacier in Upper Verkhoyanie mountains, Northeast Siberia. Image courtesy of Olga Ulturgasheva.

Marie-Jeanne Royer discussed a community-based monitoring initiative conducted by a collaborative network of scientists and Cree trappers in Eastern Canada. They identified challenges for local biodiversity brought about by climate change and anthropogenic factors as mining activity and hydro-electric power stations. The conditions they detailed included thinning ice, shifting precipitation patterns that affect the load-bearing capacity of that ice along the lakes and rivers used by the trappers, changing patterns of animal behaviors, and the impact of hydro-electric developments on what Royer calls the "fragility of space". Cree explicitly connect these shifts in ice and animal behavior to climate change. Cree are keen for their knowledge to be recognized. They also want to know what the geographers are learning, and they are consciously combining their knowledge sources to generate strategies for coping with an increasingly unfamiliar present and an unpredictable future.

Eveny reindeer herder with their domestic reindeer. Image courtesy of Olga Ulturgasheva.Eveny reindeer herder with their domestic reindeer. Image courtesy of Olga Ulturgasheva.

Siberian Eveny reindeer herders' safety are threatened by increased likelihood of snow avalanches. Image courtesy of Olga Ulturgasheva.Siberian Eveny reindeer herders' safety are threatened by increased likelihood of snow avalanches. Image courtesy of Olga Ulturgasheva.

The second session produced accounts of the impacts of changing conditions in the natural environment, contextualised through an examination of local reactions. Taisiia Keimetinova and Vasilii Keimetinov are Siberian Eveny reindeer herders who follow their animals on migratory routes that shift between high mountains, where glaciers provide refuge from the summer heat, and lower altitudes during the winter where life is easier for both humans and reindeer. Their video illustrated collapsing mountains; sudden, all-engulfing floods; intense temperature rises that threaten reindeer because they can no longer retreat to glacial ice for refuge from heat and mosquitoes; and erratic behavior of animals. Virtually, every aspect of daily life has been rendered unpredictable. As the need for fast response times becomes ever more urgent, the pace of their lives has increased. Building on their already mobile lifestyle, they are making lighter infrastructure in order to pack up camp and move within minutes, shifting routes for moving across the landscape, and using every possible predictive method available to them. It is an exemplary account of resilience without trivialising the enormity of the events confronting residents of the Siberian boreal forests.

Reindeer pastures in Upper Verkhoyanie mountains, Northeast Siberia. Image courtesy of Olga Ulturgasheva.Reindeer pastures in Upper Verkhoyanie mountains, Northeast Siberia. Image courtesy of Olga Ulturgasheva.

Astrid Ogilvie and Niels Einarsson noted that Iceland is experiencing familiar environmental changes: diminishing sea ice cover, warming temperatures, and changes in fish stocks. Einarsson examined the "perfect storm" on Grímsey Island of economic collapse associated with global events of 2008, environmental changes, and especially the local side effects of a neoliberal fisheries governance system that treats what were formerly common property rights as privately owned and transferable commodities. Quota-holding fishermen conducted what Einarsson called "an irreversible experiment" of selling their fishing rights. This generated not only the monetization of value—fishing rights may now be treated as financial assets—but also monetization of risk, resulting in new forms of unsustainable debt and social inequities. Global capitalist regimes, as well as the neoliberal ideologies that currently underpin them, are assumed to be relentlessly expansive. These accounts provide a nuanced view of the social consequences of such processes and open up the possibility of considering complex ways in which social actors respond to them.

Glenn Juday described the climate shifts in Alaska's interior from his perspective as a boreal ecologist, but focused primarily on the ethical dimensions of these shifts as understood by the Alaskan diocese of the Catholic Church in the aftermath of the papal encyclical of 2015. Resonating with Ogilvie and Royer, his scientific accounts—which combined data documenting changes in climatological, geological, and biological conditions—showed the extent to which the Arctic is warming faster than any other inhabited place on Earth. This in turn leads to species collapse as well as species transformations. He noted the mismatch between inflexible institutions and rapidly shifting environmental conditions and considered spiritual strength as an adaptive factor.

The final presentations invited us to broaden our perspective again. As with the Iñupiaq and Eveny papers, Diemberger suggested that thinking about ice at high altitudes might be usefully joined with thinking about ice at high latitudes—in her words, the cryosphere. This connects accounts of changes in the Arctic latitudes that characterise Iñupiaq homelands, of the Eveny reindeer herders who reside at both high latitudes and the high altitudes of the Upper Verkhoyanie mountains in Siberia, and the Tibetan she interviewed, for whom ice and snow are a constant and powerful presence. Her work emphasizes the importance of understanding ice and glaciers as powerful in themselves in both of these kinds of areas.

Diemberger's paper resonated with Rasmus and Nation's account. In both cases, we hear how youth often experience environmental change without the needed skills for knowing how to cope. According to the presenter, Yup'ik and Athabaskan elders make an explicit connection between changes in the physical climate and changes in the social climate brought about by colonialism, the spread of industrial capital, and challenges to local ways of knowing. As young people have become more village bound, the potential balancing out of human emotional relations through balanced human/animals relations has become curtailed. The authors argued that physical and social environmental change can intensify feelings of uncertainty which, when coupled with other forms of stresses associated with devalued cultural practices, can generate a sense of a closed-down future that may lead to suicide.

Themes of risk and resilience, of giving voice and being silenced, of unfamiliarity and uncertainty, of gathering together, and of reaching out were threaded through the entire day. The panel discussion highlighted the idea that the major plan for dealing with uncertainty is building up a "stash" of strategies combined in different ways depending on circumstances.

For more information, please contact Barbara Bodenhorn, University of Cambridge (bb106 [at] and Olga Ulturgasheva, University of Manchester (olga.ulturgasheva [at]