Guest blog: exploring polar governance

18 May, 2017

On March 27 2017, British Antarctic Survey played host to a lively and well attended workshop on polar governance. Throughout the day an array of scientists, social scientists, and humanities scholars spoke about both the Arctic and Antarctic, and the challenges and opportunities therein.  Klaus Dodds shares his views.

Polar governance – political passion and legal complexity

There were, in the midst of a rich collection of talks, a number of cross-cutting themes that all the speakers touched upon. The first was that polar governance is complex, dynamic and intersected with and by legal regimes and political forces. This may sound self-evident to interested polar observers but it often runs counter to popular perceptions of the polar regions as remote and sparsely populated, and therefore thinly governed. Just because there is no indigenous human population in Antarctica does not make Antarctica anything but a complex object of and for governance. As the recent negotiations over the Ross Sea marine protected areas serves to remind us, the apparently remoter areas of the world still attract plenty of political passion and legal complexity. The Antarctic Treaty System and the Arctic Council, for example, are important elements in this but they are not exclusively so.

Expressing governance through science and law

Second, polar governance expresses itself through the administration and categorization of polar space and its inhabitants. Speakers spoke about how animals such as the Barents Sea snow crab become subject to intriguing attempts by Norway and Russia to classify it as a ‘resource’ on the seabed, which could then attract sovereign rights claims. The Antarctic’s fauna has been classified and divided into distinct conservation biogeographic regions, and marine protected areas also remind us that governance is always a space-making project. It does not simply get applied to pre-existing places. Science and law inform this project because they provide expertise, knowledge claims and practices, which make the above possible.

The poles are part of global environmental and social systems

Third, many papers made it clear how much political, scientific, legal and administrative labour is necessary for polar governance. Papers are produced, meetings convened, reports released, networks supported, research funded, laws implemented, declarations issued, and infrastructure maintained. What we learnt from all this endeavour is that there will always be feedback loops, unintended consequences, non-linear reactions, contingencies and interaction effects that we may never be entirely able to predict however vigilant we think we are being. The Arctic and Antarctic are part of global environmental and social systems and that means that sometimes all that effort put into polar governance may produce things that few wanted. From 2014 onwards, the deterioration of relations with Russia has placed Arctic co-operation under some strain despite the locus of tension being far beyond the High North itself. The election of President Trump in November 2016 also unleashed anxieties about whether the funding and profile of climate change research would be diminished with implications for the political and public understanding of the polar regions.

The poles and popular culture

Fourth, a number of speakers spoke of the popular cultures of polar governance. Social media, as environmental groups have recognised, provides yet another opportunity to develop their distinct agendas. Increasing numbers of travellers are posting, videoing, and writing about the Arctic and Antarctic, and more and more images of the polar regions circulate throughout the world. What this means is that those privileged actors such as states and specialist organizations with long histories of polar engagement no longer dominate the cultural conversations about the Arctic and Antarctic. Images, videos and blogs create their own polar publics and some parts of the Arctic and Antarctic become more visualised than others. Specialist agencies like BAS find themselves increasingly joined by others (including tourists and scientists) producing their own audio-visual representations of British Antarctic Territory.

Tourists walk ashore at Ny Alesund on Svalbard

Knowing when to listen

Finally, and inter-related to the above, the challenges for scientists and social scientists alike is how we create and communicate expert stories about the Arctic and Antarctic. This is more than simply science/social science communication per se. The stories we tell about the Arctic in particular are hugely important for a region that has been profoundly shaped by settler colonialism, dispossession and marginalisation of indigenous peoples. These are uncomfortable topics and science and scientific knowledge has been integral to the colonization of the North. The inter-relationship between science and traditional indigenous knowledge is a partnership in progress, and there are moments when scientists (social and physical/environmental) need to know when to listen, to defer and to learn from communities that have occupied the Arctic for millennia.

Polar science in action

Polar regions are being ever more globalized

Looking forward, the workshop seemed to suggest that inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary research and scholarship is going to be increasingly vital for the polar regions that are being ever more globalized. Both the Arctic and Antarctic, as they attract greater public interest, will also challenge those of us who profess to enjoy professional expertise and competency. Will appeals to evidence ‘trump’ feelings and impressions about what the polar regions are and should be in the future? And finally, whatever else happens in the Arctic and Antarctica, there are complex imaginative and communicative legacies that need to be understood alongside contemporary interest in science, sustainability, environmental protection and sovereignty. So the arts and humanities have a vital role here to play.

Overall, it was a thought provoking day which also highlights not only the breadth of UK expertise but also the international partnerships and networks that make much of this possible.

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. He is the co-author of The Scramble for the Poles (Polity 2016) and co-editor of The Handbook on the Politics of Antarctica (Edward Elgar 2017).