Arctic, climate change and science diplomacy

From Rovaniemi to Shanghai

The Arctic Circle China Forum, hosted by the Ministry of Natural Resources of China, was held in Shanghai, on May 10 – 11, at a rather special time point, straight after the ministers from 8 Arctic countries did not reach a final joint declaration at the 11th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland. This is the first time in the Arctic Council’s 23-year history. While the majority of Arctic Council members regarded climate change as a fundamental challenge for the Arctic, and acknowledged the urgent need to take mitigation and adaptation actions, the wording “climate change” is missing in the final statement of the Chair.  

Only a few days after, high-level representatives from the Nordic countries, Nordic officials and Ambassadors who also participated in the Ministerial Meeting in Rovaniemi joined the Shanghai Forum. Last, but not least, so did Senator Lisa Murkowski, the first Alaskan-born Senator and the Chairperson of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Another interesting observation is that, not only Arctic countries, but also Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea, together with China have a strong presence at the Forum. 

One immediate question raised by many people is why China? why are Asian countries engaged and engaging in the Arctic issues? There are certainly some geopolitical dimensions to this – which are surely sensitive, contentious – and even dividing. The messages from the Forum on climate change, climate-risks and the knowledge and research needed for dealing with these risks – innovatively and collaboratively, shed new lights on how we can avoid losing the Arctic, losing the World, and losing our faith in a common future.

Climate change, polar sciences and the need for global collaboration

No other region of the Earth has warmed as rapidly over the past few decades as the Arctic, which was highlighted in the 1.5- degree special report from the IPCC. For instance, air temperature in the Arctic in November 2016 were 20 degrees higher than normal, i.e. usually around -25 degrees.

According the latest UNEP-report on “Global Linkages – A graphic look at the changing Arctic”:

  • Many changes are already “locked-in” for the Arctic. In the years and decades to come, adaptation that integrates and respects local knowledge and Indigenous knowledge will be vital to help Arctic societies address the coming challenges.
  • Global action is needed to reduce CO2 emissions to avoid tipping points.
  • Longer-term efforts to transition to low-carbon economies, both in the Arctic and globally, must be complemented by instant measures to reduce SLCPs, including methane, tropospheric ozone and black carbon.
  • Concerted efforts are also needed to ensure that governments around the world understand the very real implications of Arctic climate change for their own countries and act appropriately.

While seeing the impact of the climate change on the Arctic and recognising the need for action, we still do not understand the changes and we still cannot predict future climate change in the Arctic – with a sufficiently solid scientific and evidence base. The research effort related to the Arctic climate system is facing at least two key challenges (explained by prof. Markus Lex):

  • Many processes in the Arctic climate system are only roughly represented in various climate models for the future climate projections.
  • Understanding of key climate processes in the Arctic is limited by a lack of data.

In this context, a concerted and joint global effort to advance polar research is not only desirable, but necessary and the research capacity and contribution to the global knowledge networks of Asian countries are important and valuable.    

Inspiring and encouraging Swedish participation at the Forum

Both Sweden’s Ambassador for Arctic Affairs, Björn Lyrvall and the Director General of the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat, Associate Prof. Katarina Gårdfeldt took part in the Forum. Sweden’s clear commitment to the sustainable development of the Arctic region as well as Sweden’s strong research capacity and international cooperation in the fields of polar research was presented at the Forum.

Björn Lyrvall, Ambassador for Arctic Affairs, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Sweden.
Katarina Gårdfeldt, Associate Professor, Director-General, Swedish Polar Research Secretariat.

Departing from her rich experience in both research and international cooperation, Prof. Gårdfeldt highlights 3 challenges faced by polar research today:

  • Lack of research ships and lack of resources for investments in research infrastructure
  • Lack of coordination of existing research infrastructure around the World
  • Lack of observations and data, for instance information on oceanography in high arctic areas, which is both difficult and expensive. 

The Swedish Polar Research Secretariat has been working on and developing a polar research process for an innovative, multidisciplinary, global co-ordinated polar science. One of the ambitions is to introduce this research process into its international cooperation with new partners.

Polar Research Process from Katarina Gårdfelt’s speech

In terms of exchange on Arctic issues with China, the Nordic countries, including Sweden, have had regular and proactive exchanges with China in the past years. The 8th China-Nordic Arctic Symposium will be held in 2020 in Umeå, with monitoring and observation as the main themes.    

MOSAiC – the largest Arctic expedition and showcase of science diplomacy    

The Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) expedition, led by Germany and taking off in September, is the largest arctic research expedition ever. It is 125 years since the Norwegian polar researcher Fridtjof Nansen made his spectacular expedition to the Central Artic in winter as the first attempted ice-drift approach. The MOSAiC expedition will be the first ever to bring a modern research icebreaker and its unparalleled scientific resources to the Central Arctic in winter, which aims to bring a breakthrough in our understanding of the Arctic climate system.

The expedition is built on collaboration with more than 60 institutes from 17 countries, including both Sweden and China. Sweden will have 5 researchers and 6 projects involved in the expedition. 18 Chinese scientists from 8 Chinese research institutes will participate in the expedition and they will carry out research in 4 major areas: sea ice, ocean, ecosystem and biogeochemistry.

Most interestingly, five icebreakers from different countries will be in involved, including Sweden’s icebreaker Oden and China’s new icebreaker XUELONG II, which will be ready in June this year. It is not an exaggeration to say that MOSAiC is not only a pioneer for cutting-edge climate and polar research, but also a truly inspiring showcase for science diplomacy, bringing the spirit of openness, shared values and joint efforts to deal with our common changes. 

Iceland – a transformative force of China’s sustainable development?

During the whole Forum, the most active and inspiring Arctic country was Iceland – which showed a strong leadership and an inspiring good example. Like other Nordic countries, Iceland has established polar research cooperation with China. But what make its cooperation with China unique, or as William McDonough put it “a world-class, real and profitable example”, is the introduction of geothermal energy into China’s clean energy transformation. The cooperation is no longer a few demonstration projects. It has become a “standard-setter” for the geothermal energy development in China’s future energy system.

Looking back to the start of the cooperation 10 years ago, the former President of Iceland and the Chairman of Arctic Circle, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson asks us “Is it really possible for a tiny country like Iceland to push for and to contribute to the transformation of China’s energy system?” With pride and confidence, he gives the answer: “Yes, we can!”. 

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, Chairman Arctic Circle, President of Iceland 1996-2016.

The future of the Arctic is being shaped by many changes – some are welcome and some are threatening.  The future of the Arctic is being determined, to a larger and larger extent, by many other countries beyond the Arctic regions. International cooperation in science and science diplomacy need to be a central piece in the next level of polar research and arctic cooperation – which brings us more trust, openness and strength for dealing with climate change and for pursuing a sustainable future – together.