The small group of international scientists, politicians and business leaders are using the Arctic research station for urgent talks on how to fast-forward a low carbon economy. They have come to the snowy archipelago of Svalbard, a few hundred kilometers from the North Pole, to hear the latest bad news on melting glaciers and climate change.
“Nowhere are the implications of global warming more visible than in the Arctic. Ecosystems as well as livelihoods are presently undergoing rapid change. In spite of all the evidence provided by science, most governments in the world have failed to take the necessary action,” said Anders Wijkman, the Swedish member of the European parliament (MEP) who is chairman of this special symposium.
After hearing predictions that 30 percent of species could be extinct and a fifth of Bangladesh underwater before 2100, he urges the removal of “all subsidies on fossil fuels” and a much stronger commitment to renewable power in measures to build a sustainable future.
Yet outside the room, in the gray Arctic waters, an oil rush looms which threatens more carbon emissions and the risk to the natural world of an accident similar to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The drilling also threatens to spark territorial disputes and saber rattling, such as the bellicose noises made by Argentina over British companies seeking oil off the Falkland Islands.
While the polar bears and arctic fox of Svalbard have grazing rights, the legal standing of different human groups in the region is more fuzzy.
Ny-Alesund research station is a base not just for the Norwegians, who have political jurisdiction, but also for British, Indian and Chinese scientists. Few believe the national bases — Beijing’s has huge stone lions outside — are there just for science. They are symbolic political and economic stakes in the future of Svalbard and the Arctic.
Drilling is also under way in earnest off Greenland to the west and in the Barents Sea to the east of Svalbard. Oil price rises and melting ice caps have made the region more accessible for mining, shipping and drilling. Yet ownership of the Arctic seabed is far from clear.
The 1920 Spitsbergen treaty, drawn up after the World War I, gave onshore mineral rights to more than a dozen signatories, including the UK. Yet there are arguments whether Svalbard’s coastal waters are part of the Norwegian continental shelf and fall within Oslo’s jurisdiction. Fishing rights are disputed between Norway and Russia.
Trond Giske, Norway’s trade minister, says the uncertainty should not be exaggerated.
“On our part, we have no problem interpreting the treaty. We have very few conflicts with other countries in this area,” he says, pointing to an agreement with Russia last year to settle territorial boundaries in the Barents Sea.
The impact of that deal over the “gray zone” only brings oil drilling wealth closer to Svalbard’s islands — and increases pressure on Oslo to debate limits to its sovereignty.
Diana Wallis, a British lawyer and former MEP, touched a raw nerve with Norway in a speech in Tromso. She talked of “unresolved disputes around Spitsbergen” and insisted the EU had a legitimate interest in this and the wider Arctic.
A wider debate does not seem to be what countries licensing drilling operations off Alaska, Russia and Greenland want to hear. They have been happy to confine dialogue to an Arctic Council largely composed of states surrounding the Arctic Ocean. And they say territorial disputes — for example, between Canada and the US over seaways — are all being handled through the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.