Norway’s Arctic archipelago of Svalbard has been attracting a steady stream of international dignitaries and top politicians in recent years, and this week the US senators John McCain and Sheldon Whitehouse were just the latest to pay a call. Environmentalists keep hoping that global attention on the effects of climate change on Svalbard will finally result in some concrete action, not least in phasing out its own controversial and paradoxical coal industry.
McCain, a former US presidential candidate for the Republican Party, and Whitehouse, who represents Rhode Island for the Democratic Party, were escorted by a state secretary in the foreign ministry, Bård Glad Pedersen. McCain’s party isn’t known for being particularly worried about climate change but the senator himself posed for photos and sent social media greetings from “the northernmost town on Earth” when the group arrived in Ny Ålesund.
Earlier this summer, it was UN Secretary general Ban Ki-moon who made the trip, escorted by Norway’s foreign minister, Børge Brende. The UN boss seized the opportunity to call on delegates to the UN’s upcoming climate summit in Paris to finally agree on measures to help curb climate change, and keep more ice from melting around Svalbard.
The high-profile visitors to the remote Norwegian outpost illustrate how important it has become, but not only as a means of highlighting the plight of polar bears unable to find food and other climate change consequences. It’s in the best interests of many countries that Svalbard remain firmly under Norwegian sovereignty, at a time of rising tensions with Russia and China, both of which have their own intentions in the Arctic. The visitors seem keen to show their interest in Svalbard, and the Norwegians are anxious to show it off.
Two professors writing in newspaper Aftenposten last week suggested that Svalbard is perhaps more important now than at any time earlier in its history. Last Friday marked 90 years since the Norwegian flag was hoisted at Skjæringa in Longyearbyen, and then-Foreign Minister Paal Berg declared it part of the Kingdom of Norway. Svalbard’s coal industry was in crisis at that time, too, as it is now, and eventually was taken over by the state in order to maintain a job base there.
Professor Geir Ulfstein and Thor Bjørn Arlov of the University of Stavanger noted how the controversial coal industry remains in crisis and was bailed out once again earlier this year. They suggest, however, that in the long run, it may become more of a problem than a player for Norwegian politicians.
“We don’t dare make any predictions about the coal operations’ future,” Ulfstein and Arlov wrote, “but guess that the government will propose a major commitment to Svalbard in general and to Longyearbyen in particular, and we think the Parliament will go along.” They noted how efforts to diversify Svalbard’s economy took root in the 1990s and 2000s, and the population has since doubled on the basis of travel and tourism ventures, research and education, and they see more potential for the service sector and other businesses that can offset a loss of jobs in the coal sector. Norway’s leading role in Arctic research can play a major role, as ocean currents bring warmer water and new species to Svalbard’s west coast. There’s no other place in the Arctic where the results of climate change are more evident, researcher told news bureau NTB last week.
The government has announced it will unveil a new plan for Svalbard next spring. Meanwhile Norway continues to administer its responsibility for managing its sector of the Arctic, and will likely keep welcoming visitors like those there over the weekend. McCain, after also visiting Norway’s major military aviation station in Bodø, was meeting with Brende and Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide in Oslo Monday evening. He was the senator, by the way, who almost singlehandedly rejected US President Barack Obama’s first choice as new US ambassador to Norway. A new ambassador is now on his way, after getting McCain’s nod.