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Security in the High North

The International Polar Year project The impact of oil and gas activity on peoples in the Arctic has received funding of NOK 6 million from the Research Council of Norway to research human security in the High North. The project will be implemented with the assistance of an expert group of researchers from seven different countries.

“It is important to ask the people who live in the High North how they experience their own security,” says Gunhild Hoogensen, an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø, who is heading the project. “It is not always the case that the academic and political interpretation of security and insecurity corresponds with how the majority of people’s experience security.”

“The challenges we have in the High North regarding the environment, climate and security are important for the entire world’s security. As one of my colleagues says, the Arctic is like a ‘canary in a mine shaft’.”

Who owns what?

The project will focus on different effects which the oil and gas activities in Norway and North-west Russia can have on people’s sense of security.

“We have access to oil and gas, which is a scarce resource of significance to the whole world,” says Associate Professor Hoogensen. “An element of insecurity can occur if we do not clarify which country owns these resources.”

“It is not only negative experiences which are accentuated through research on human security. We will also research the possibilities in the north and positive opportunities for development,” she says, adding: “It is also important for the researchers to ascertain what makes people feel secure and good about themselves, not just what threatens them.”

Insecurity in a peace zone

The fear of terror, persecution, hunger, violence, environmental destruction, natural catastrophe and identity crisis are important elements in the conception of human security. While traditional conception of security focuses on diplomatic insecurity between countries, human security concerns individual experiences.

Human security in Northern Norway is associated with energy security, environmental security and resource management.

“Research in the High North can show us what constitutes the terms of human security in a peace zone,” says Associate Professor Hoogensen. “It can also show us where we can find and create security. In many circumstances, the State can contribute to insecurity. The authorities, for examples, can say yes to oil and gas development without taking people’s wishes into consideration.”

There are different methods we use to create a sense of security, despite the State’s ideas, she says. “When it becomes clear that the State cannot create security for all, individuals can create their own safety zones.”

An Arctic identity

The High North is in an exceptional position issues here do not concern one State against another. They concern an area with eight nations, all of which have their governments south of the Arctic areas.

“The whole of Norway is not part of the Arctic society. What distinguishes the Arctic society from the national society?” she asks. “The identity of many people in Northern Norway is associated with Northern Norway, and an ‘us against them’ attitude still exists in relation to other Norwegians. The identity is attached to what ‘they’ define us as, just as much as how ‘we’ define ourselves.”

Climate change and identity

One cannot discuss climate change without discussing its influence on the society. Not least, climate change can have significance on our conception of our self-identity.

“Identity is very much attached to the location,” says Associate Professor Hoogensen. “We are accustomed to the weather, skiing, berries, reindeer and fish. If climate change results in a change to this then our whole identity will change. One result of this can be increased insecurity.”

Associate Professor Hoogensen cites as one example the Inuit people in Canada who had to change their entire diet after environmental poisoning was detected in their traditional food. As this environmental poisoning could lead to cancer, neurological damage and could be lethal for children, the government advised the Inuit people against eating traditional food such as seal blubber.

“The Inuit people needed to relate to the market economy, while previously they could catch their own food. What they learned from this was that they were not a dominant group. Men in particular were affected by this and the suicide rate among men became very high. Many people have now gone back to their traditional food habits.”

Spokespeople for the scientists

The project about human security will be implemented in close collaboration with natural science researchers from Norwegian Polar Institute.

“The project is a social scientific approach to climate change and the oil and gas activities,” says Associate Professor Hoogensen. “Our Research Fellows will, among other things, interpret natural scientific research findings in a social scientific perspective.”

She believes researchers who are implementing natural science often feel they have problems conveying their findings to the administrators and the general public.

“As soon as an economist in Great Britain speaks out about the consequences global warming will have on our economy, the governments realise that this is a problem. At the same time, natural scientists experience a problem getting heard. Who our governments are willing to listen to is also a question of human security,” says Associate Professor Hoogensen.

“People like me who work with political science have the advantage that we speak the politicians’ language. Hopefully, through this project, we can interpret what is happening with the environment in the High North into the language used in political circles.”

Karen Marie Christensen | alfa
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