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Arctic Encounter 2023: An Exchange of Polar Perspectives

by | Apr 5, 2023 | Arctic, Energy, Featured, News

Arctic Encounter founder and executive director Rachel Kallander opens the third day of the meeting.

Alaska Business

More than 1,000 participants from twenty-two countries converged in Anchorage last week for Arctic Encounter Symposium 2023. Now a decade old, the annual conference brings together policy experts and business leaders to discuss science, technology, and commerce from a polar perspective.

Common Challenges and Opportunities

At the opening day luncheon on Wednesday, Greenland’s minister of foreign affairs, business, and trade, Vivian Motzfeldt, laid out the goal of the symposium. “This event gives us a chance to come together to discuss our common challenges and opportunities while creating new and valuable connections, fostering increased north-to-north cooperation,” she said.

Wisdom from the world’s largest island echoes from past Arctic Encounters. “The Greenland delegation, as they attend various Arctic conferences, has really made the impression,” said Tara Sweeney, former assistant secretary of Indian affairs in the Trump administration, now president and CEO of strategy consulting firm Tack 71. Sweeney quoted a Greenland aphorism, “Nothing about us without us,” adding, “That rings so true here in Alaska: the communities that are impacted need to be at the table.”

Ongoing natural resource debates are part of the river that delegates wade into when they visit Alaska. One of the symposium co-sponsors, CRES Forum, is an environmental advocacy group that tunes its message to the Republican Party. For instance, it promotes Alaska resources as a cleaner alternative to extraction elsewhere.

One might expect a more traditional environmental nonprofit, The Nature Conservancy, to disagree. The group’s Alaska director, Ivy Spohnholz, was pressed into that role at a panel about resource development, opposite Sweeney and others. Yet Spohnholz volunteered that domestic regulations are strong enough for responsible development. “We have the ability to do things well in the United States that maybe not every country does,” she said. “There are sometimes suggestions that no new development should happen in the United States or in the global north, and what we end up with is countries that have less economic opportunities and fewer regulatory protections… end up bearing all of the burden.”

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Ivy Spohnholz (center) and Tara Sweeney (second from right) participate in a panel discussion about natural resource development at Arctic Encounter 2023.

Alaska Business

Delegates also heard about Alaska’s potential as a technology testing ground, particularly for renewable energy. “Alaska presents an incredible opportunity… for pilots of technologies in a demo phase,” said Kiera O’Brien, a public policy representative from the Washington, D.C. office of French oil company TotalEnergies. She’s originally from Ketchikan, but she did express one reservation about her home state: “What’s not quite there yet, from a state policy standpoint, is the market [scale] deployment.”

Arctic Encounter is a chance for Alaskans to learn how the state’s problems might be solved using models from elsewhere, just as visitors witness the Alaska way of doing things.

Humble guests hardly came to Anchorage to tell their hosts what’s what, but Alaskans are drawing inspiration from Arctic Encounter delegates, borrowing solutions to mutual problems. Jennifer Spence, senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Arctic Initiative, listed several interests that circumpolar nations have in common. “We see the need for better energy security. We see the need for more reliability and sovereignty, the ability for communities to make their own decisions. And the question of sustainability,” she said. “Part of that is learning from the different communities who’ve had these experiences.” Spence’s home community is Canada, and she cited Iceland as another example.

Gwen Holdmann, UAF associate vice chancellor of research for innovation and industry partnerships, spent time in Iceland as a Fulbright fellow studying geothermal energy. “They’re using affordable energy, based on local resources that they have available, to really drive local economic development. A lot of that is around innovative small businesses or processes that feed into a broader global economy,” Holdmann said.

What Alaska can contribute, Holdmann suggested, is pioneering work in distributed isolated electrical microgrids. “I think there’s opportunities to learn and look at what Alaska is doing to see the applications for other markets as well,” she said.

Gwen Holdmann (second from right) and Jennifer Spence (right) participate in a
panel discussion about innovation at Arctic Encounter 2023.

Alaska Business

Those markets might be far from the Arctic Circle. Japan sent its ambassador for international economic affairs and Arctic affairs, Keizo Takewaka, to the conference. He reminded the gathering, “What happens in Asia has many things to do with the world and the Arctic,” given the continent’s growing population and greenhouse gas emissions.

Conversely, “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” said Sam Tan, Singapore’s special envoy for Arctic affairs and non-resident high commissioner to Canada. His home country is near the equator, but oceans abide no boundaries. “The rising sea level doesn’t stay in the Arctic; it actually overflows to many other parts of the world. Coastal states like Singapore are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels,” Tan said.

The city-state packs more than 5 million people into 280 square miles, or less than one-fifth the land area of the Municipality of Anchorage.

Meanwhile, Anchorage’s population is five times that of Greenland, an island one-third again as large as the state.

Geography shapes the diverse perspectives that Arctic Encounter brings together. Minister Motzfeldt said in her welcome, “I see many opportunities to increase cooperation among us. As Arctic peoples, we have much to learn from one another.”

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The track of oil and gas development in Alaska shows the footprints of bold companies and hard-working individuals who shaped the industry in the past and continue to innovate today. The May 2024 issue of Alaska Business explores that history while looking forward to new product development, the energy transition for the fishing fleet, and the ethics of AI tools in business.

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