28th September: The future history of the Arctic: gold rush or a new cold war?

This lecture was presented by Charles Emmerson, former Associate Director of the World Economic Forum, and author of the book The Future History of the Arctic. Emmerson dealt with the highly relevant, contentious and important issues related to the future of the Arctic region. The Arctic is currently undergoing major changes – both environmentally and strategically – brought on by climate change. Melting glaciers means better access to resources, in particular oil and gas, and sea routes. This, of course, has spurred huge interest in the region by neighboring countries with potential conflict and competition as a result.

Emmerson identified eight countries bordering the Arctic: Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark (Greenland / Faroe Islands), Canada and the United States. Russia is by far the largest Arctic state and Arctic issues have been high on the Russian foreign policy agenda. Thus, Emmerson also predicted that Russia will be a major actor and influence in shaping the future of the Arctic. Iceland is in the unique position of being the only country which is almost completely located within the Arctic. Emmerson emphasised the importance of Iceland entering into the debate as, due to its geographically proximity, Iceland will be directly affected by what happens in this region. He also pointed out that increased use of natural resources might be a great opportunity for Greenland´s bid for independence.

However, despite the stakes involved, states have shown a willingness to cooperate on the issues. The will to cooperate will be essential as the challenges of economic development and environmental management are enormous. It is though, extremely difficult to predict what the future holds for the Arctic region, but one thing is certain; the interest in the region extends far beyond the countries belonging to it. The threat of conflict, competition and environmental disasters is real, and Emmerson urged Iceland to take part in shaping the future of the Arctic.