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Kids, POPS and Arctic Science

 

Planetarium at Tromso Science Center of Northern Norway

Planetarium at Tromso Science Center of Northern Norway

Norway, believe it or not, is having problems recruiting scientists and qualified personnel for the Arctic. The generous education system attracts plenty of foreign students, it seems. But there is a lack of Norwegian PhD students. Not that the country doesn’t welcome foreign students, but understandably they would like to have people who stay on in the Norwegian Arctic as well as those who take their qualifications back home to wherever. For that reason, the Arctic Frontiers conference and APECS, the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists decided to “start them young” and invited pupils from two local schools to an Arctic science workshop in the planetarium of the Tromso Science Centre, the country’s northernmost. As I arrived, I found myself overtaken by youngsters rushing down to have a look at the gadgetry and a hands-on shot at scientific experiments. This is the kind of place that interests young people in the workings of nature and technology.

Young science "stars" amongst the planetarium stars

Young science “stars” amongst the planetarium stars

Kirsten and Ida talked to me (in English, great language skills) about their project. They had made a poster of the type displayed at scientific conferences. Their subject: Persistant Organic Pollutants, POPs. They told me the increasing concentration of these up here in the remote Arctic environment is something that worries them.

Young scientists' work on display

Young scientists’ work on display

The posters are entered in a competion, with awards and attendance at next year’s big Arctic conference event awaiting the winners. The girls were reserving judgement about whether Arctic science would be their future careers. But they were willing to give it due consideration and looking forward to the “science show” at the planetarium. Let’s see which pupils turn up here again next year!

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Centre Director Tove Marienborg demonstrates the energy involved in using the “Spark” or kick-sled.

 

Date

January 24, 2014 | 12:20 pm

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Climate Change: Arctic in denial?

Norway’s “Arctic Capital” – closest to climate change?

If there is one place you would imagine people would have to be conscious of climate change, it would be the Arctic, where the temperature is rising around twice as fast as the global average. As I mentioned in the Ice Blog yesterday and in my article on dw.de from here in Tromsö, changes to the sea ice and temperature are altering life rapidly and visibly for people in the high north. So I was intrigued by a side-event here at Arctic Frontiers, which made it clear that this does not necessarily mean people are aware of climate change and what it involves – at least not consciously or actively.

“How to Create a Climate for Change” was the subject of the workshop organised by UArctic, the University of the Arctic. (That is not the same as Tromsö University, which is called Norway’s Arctic University. UArctic is a cooperative network of northern universities and other educational institutions.)

The workshop was looking at awareness of climate change in Norway and other Arctic regions. Kari Marie Norgaard is Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon in the USA. She spent ten months researching in Bygdaby,a community in northern Norway and told us she had actually monitored  an “incredible disconnect between the moral, social, and environmental crisis of climate change and people not realising it is happening.”norgaard2

This is not limited to the Arctic, although it seems particularly striking in an area undergoing such major changes. There seems to be a widespread paradox in that climate change is leading to dramatic alterations to ecology systems and significant social consequences, but that there is no widespread sense of a need for urgent action.

This is not limited to the Arctic, although it seems particularly striking in an area undergoing such major changes. There seems to be a widespread paradox in that climate change is leading to dramatic alterations to ecology systems and significant social consequences, but that there is no widespread sense of a need for urgent action. Humans, says Norgaard, are “not getting it”. They are carrying on regardless, acting as if nothing were happening.

Denial but not climate scepticism

She speaks of “denial”, but not in the sense that people do not accept that climate change is happening. Norgaard told me she has come under a lot of pressure from the extreme right in the USA, who do not understand her distinction. Her hypothesis is that we know climate change is happening just as we know violence, rape or massacres happen. But we do not perceive it as psychologically disturbing or carrying a moral imperative to act. Norgaard is interested in how and why people collectively resist information about climate change. She focuses on Norway rather than her home country USA because this is a country with a high rate of newspaper readership, high levels of political participation,and where climate change is more visible in the northern region, and people know it is happening.

But in spite of the fact that Bygdaby is highly dependent on farming and tourism, where the climate is important, the fact that the winter had been warm, the snow was two months late and artificial snow had to be used for skiing, did not result in a heightened interest in climate change. In fact, she says, it  was invisible in social or political life. One of her conclusions is that people want to protect themselves to some extent and so prefer to live as if climate change was not happening. Her theory is that people don’t want to feel guilty about their lifestyle and also try to avoid fear of the future and feeling helpless.

The greatest communication failure of all time?

 Althouth Norgaard did her research in Norway, she says the findings apply equally elsewhere, including the USA, where regions are already experiencing climate impacts with economic consequences, but people don’t want to accept that it could have something to do with their lifestyle and require unpleasant action.

Arctic psychologist Stoknes' cartoon

Arctic psychologist Stoknes’ cartoon

Per Espen Stoknes is Associate Professor at the Center for Climate Strategy of the Norwegian Business Institute NBI. He says surveys going back to 1989 in Norway show a decrease in people’s concern about the greenhouse effect and climate change .Only

4 in 10 see it as a problem and only 8% see it as being of importance. Espen stresses this is not because of a lack of knowledge. In fact, he thinks the better the facts get, the less people care.

Stoknes came up with an interesting figure. Apparently the public has the impression only 55% of climate scientists agree on global warming. In realty, it is 97%.Getting the  message about climate change across is the ““Greatest communication failure of all time”, says Stoknes.

 

Who’s to blame?

 Some of the responsibility lies with the scientists in his view. He says scientists need to lecture people less and discuss more. Another problem is that people tend to think of climate as being very distant in time and space. An IPCC estimate for 2100 seems a long way away. For people outside the Arctic, melting sea ice  also seems geographically very remote. The same applies to places like Bangladesh or the Maldives.

Stoknes suggestions for improving the situation are not new. But evidently, the message has not got across – or the suggestions proved not effective. He says the media should have less gloom and doom and present more positive stories and examples of practicable action. If only it were that simple.

Stoknes sees a "psychological climate paradox"

Stoknes sees a “psychological climate paradox”

I remember numerous heated discussions on this topic at a Global Media Forum on Climate Change and the Media in Bonn  in 2010, and atvarious other events I was involved in. Communicating climate change in a way that will make people take action in their everyday lives and put pressure on governments to do the same, remains a priority and a challenge.

One idea Stoknes has strikes me as being useful. He stresses the power of social norms to change behaviour, and suggests campaigns that make people compete with their peers – neighbours, other towns, friends, relatives, for being climate-conscious, can be effective. He talked about the success of an app where people can record and compare their energy saving.

Another possibility is to make “greener” options the default, something I was talking further about with some US colleagues today. If the normal way a printer works is to use both sides of the paper, for instance, people will do that. Not though if they have to change a setting

Plenty of food for thought here. The psychological and social dimensions of climate change awareness clearly deserve more consideration.

 

 

Date

January 23, 2014 | 7:38 pm

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Sun returns after dark Arctic winter

The sun comes up over Tromso

The sun has come back over the horizon. I can understand why people celebrate it here. At the moment there are just a few hours of light. Now the sun actually appears at around 12. In between the Arctic Frontiers conference sessions, I took a lunchtime walk to see the sun come up. What a difference it makes to how you perceive your surroundings! I cannot resist sharing a few visual impressions with you on the Ice Blog:

Reflections!

Reflections! No reflections without light! We tend to take our light for granted. It’s very special after the winter darkness here.

This would me my preferred means of transport here

This would me my preferred means of transport here.

But others go for a more universal type. Are there snow chains for bikes?

Are there snow chains for bikes?

Of course people dress for the weather. Elegant?

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Traditional, warm, practical.

And a final view of frosted snow trees against the winter sunlight.

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Now back to the science sessions of Arctic Frontiers. The place has quietened down since the departure of the politicians.Remember to check for updates on Twitter @iceblogger

Date

January 22, 2014 | 3:28 pm

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Oil, Industry and Arctic Sustainability

Protesters capture media attention

Protesters capture media attention

I arrived at the university campus for Arctic Frontiers this morning to find a row of young people waiting to welcome the Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg with a banner protesting against fossil fuel drilling in the Arctic. Ingrid Skjoldvaer, the deputy leader of Norway’s biggest youth environment organisation told me they want the prime minister to stop Arctic drilling in Norwegian seas and be serious about cutting emissions and taking their climate goals seriously. She knows it brings in a lot of revenue, but says we need to start a transition now for a future with renewables. WWF’s Nina Jensen told me she thinks there is a growing awareness in Norway of the link between fossil fuel emissions and the climate change that is affecting the Arctic so dramatically.

No future without Arctic oil?

In her address to the conference, PM Solberg was clear about the continuing importance of oil and gas drilling for Norway. In a speech focussing on the goal of making northern Norway an “innovative and stable region” and an “attractive place to live” through sustainable development, it became clear that fossil fuel extraction is an integral part of her policy to give people living in the region employment, education, improved infrastructure and maritime safety. At the same time, she stresses, this domestic policy priority is in line with growing international interest in the Arctic.

Norwegian premier defends oil policy

Norwegian premier defends oil policy

There was acknowledgement of the problems caused by climate change. But the young people outside will have been disappointed if they hoped for any signs of a shift in fossil fuel policy (not likely in this context or in general with agreement across the parties that Arctic development is key, it seems).  WWF’s Nina Jensen told me afterwards she had not expected much else, but was pleased that climate change had at least been mentioned repeatedly in the speech.

The PM stressed the government’s investment in research and development as part of the “need to seize new opportunities and meet new challenges in a rapidly changing Arctic.” The main challenge facing the High North is the lack of qualified labour, she said, stressing also that  oil and gas are important  areas for future developments. Clearly, the country, whose wealth is based on revenue from oil in the past, is going full speed ahead for Arctic development. Sustainability? Always mentioned, but there still seems to be no answer to the question of how drilling for Arctic oil and continuing climate-changing emissions from fossil fuels can be sustainable.

Greenland, the “ice island”

Imagine a giant island with 3 climate zones, being pushed almost 2km northwards each year. That statistic was quoted by Greenland’s premier Alequa Hammond in her speech. It illustrates graphically the huge changes facing the environment and people of the world’s biggest island with the ice sheet that contains the biggest amount of water in the northern hemisphere and is of key importance to the world climate and global sea levels.

I had awaited the speech by Greenland’s premier Alequa Hammond with interest and was not disappointed. She started by saying she was going to talk not primarily about oil, gas and mining as most might expect, but health and the environment. (Not that the two are unconnected). In her talk, she brought home the effects of climate change on the traditional lifestyles of indigenous Greenlanders in what seemed to me an authentic and sincere way. As well as the melting ice problem, she talked of the contaminants polluting the environment and finding their way into Arctic mammals. Whether you just love them as part of our biodiversity for the sake of it or want them for your food supply, pollution from industrial activity far, far away, is endangering animal life up here.

Greenland premier Alequa Hammond

Greenland’s Alequa Hammond

Hammond is a realist. She knows her small country needs revenue to achieve the goal of full independence from Denmark. But she is also well aware of the negative impacts of rapid industrialisation on a people traditionally very close to nature. While physical health has been improved by better housing, nutrition and health care in the last 50 years, Hammond stresses the negative mental and physical health effects of a loss of traditional values. She mentioned the above-average suicide rates in northern circumpolar areas. Then there are chronic illnesses and heart disease brought on by a shift from hunting and fishing to “office-worker lifestyle”. Urbanisation is another factor, with 80% of the 15.000 Greenlanders living in the capital Nuuk and only 20% in villages, whereas just 100 years ago everyone lived in small settlements.

Hammond identifies the dilemma: How to bring Greenland the prosperity it needs using easier access to oil, gas and minerals, made more accessible through climate change, without destroying a society rapidly being catapulted from a traditional nature-based rural lifestyle into the realities of the industrialised, commercialised, globalised world where the environment has at best secondary priority?

She talked a lot about the special relation with Denmark, the former colonial power. For her it is clear that Greenlanders have the right to complete self-determination – without losing that close relationship.

There was just one thing that I did not find adequately addressed in Hammond’s presentation. She made a clear case for the need for environment protection. We need to do more on maritime safety, oil spill preparedness, cost-effective surveillance solutions to detect oil spills, search and rescue.  But when she proudly refers to her government’s controversial decision to abandon the country’s zero-tolerance policy of mining uranium and other minerals with radioactive content, I find it hard to see how this fits.

Another clear message was that outsiders should not interfere. While Hammond said she approved of the decision to have non-Arctic speakers at Arctic Frontiers (and at a time when the secretariat of the Arctic Council here in Tromso is holding a high-level closed doors meeting discussing the role of the many observers to the body), she said “It is clear for me that development in the Arctic should be given by the needs and inspirations of the people of the Arctic. Anything else would be wrong.” At the same time she appealed to any new partners in the Arctic to bear in mind that even small changes will have a big effect on a small indigenous population. Perhaps this reflects the realistic knowledge that developing the Arctic will not be possible without the economic power and the expertise of outsiders. Fine food for thought on this final day of the political part of a conference on “Humans in the Arctic”.

Updates on  Twitter @iceblogger

Date

January 21, 2014 | 1:35 pm

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Sustainable Future for Arctic people?

Tromso campus

Tromso campus

It has been a full day at Arctic Frontiers. This was day one of the two-day political segment (science follows from Wednesday). The main message seems to be that Arctic development is going full speed ahead. The Arctic Council (currently chaired by Canada) snd Arctic states will have their hands full in the years to come, coordinating that development and trying to make it sustainable and of benefit to the people of the High North. “Humans in the Arctic” is a very apt theme.

My impression after today’s events is that Sami and other indigenous people still feel a little out in the cold as the planet warms, the ice melts fast and development speeds up.

Sami Parliament President

Sami Parliament President Ailei Keskitalo

Aili Keskitalo President of the Norwegian Sami Parliament (and first female President of any Sami parliament) stressed in her opening address that the changes in the Arctic are clearly impacting living conditions for people in the High North. She mentioned health concerns influenced by climatic change, the accumulation of environmental toxins in food, changes in lievelihoods through new industries, pressure on traditional cultures having an impact on mental health. As indigenous peoples often live close to nature, they are in the front line of climatic change. Traditional industries like fishing, trapping, reindeer husbandry and strong ties to the landscape, imply additional vulnerability to industrial encroachment and other developments, she stressed.

Clearly, mining, oil exploration and the changes that come with them are a huge challenges for indigenous peoples. Challenges and opportunities were buzzwords in today’s sessions. How to help traditional indigenous communities benefit from the “opportunities” of development? Keskitalo stressed the need to respect the human rights of these communities when developing natural resources and changing the environment.

Other high-profile speakers (some more high profile than others – an indication of the priority allocated to the meeting by different Arctic states?) certainly went on a lot about opportunities and making sure the people of the High North get the benefit. But I couldn’t help wondering how much was lip service. This was backed up by informal chats with people in the breaks and some of the questions from the floor. But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating…

Shipping is on the increase in the Arctic region

Tromso: Shipping is on the increase in the Arctic region

It was only in the final session of the day, a panel debate on the Northern Shipping Route, that an ngo representative, Nina Jensen, CEO of WWF Norge, was on the podium. I seem to remember more ngo active participation in earlier years. At that point in the meeting there was finally talk of dangers for rare species,  black carbon increase, additional pollution from shipping through grey water, sewage, the danger of a spill of heavy fuel oil, invasive species in ballast water and such like. Yes, climate change-induced Arctic development brings with it not only opportunities but also risks and threats.

The debate was conducted mainly between Nina Jensen and Felix Tschudi, the Chairman of Tschudi Group shipping company, who was putting the industry point of view. Needless to say the two had differing opinions  before, during and at the end of the debate. It would be surprising otherwise. It was mentioned during the day that the Polar Code negotiations might be successfully concluded in London this week. That, says Jensen, would be an important first step. But it would not solve all the problems.

This is a debate which will continue tomorrow – and, I have no doubt, well after the end of Arctic Frontiers. How compatible are economic development, environmental protection and the health and traditional cultures of indigenous groups in the Arctic?

 

Date

January 21, 2014 | 6:28 am

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