John Kerry, the United States Secretary of State, visited a glacier recently in Svalbard, Norway, as part of his travels to meetings in the Nordic countries. He was accompanied by his counterpart, the Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende. The experience of seeing retreating glaciers and shrinking sea ice impressed him. On his Twitter account, he wrote, “Witnessed the effects of #climatechange firsthand w/ @borgebrende in #Svalbard while touring Blomstrand glacier.”
While aboard a research vessel near Ny Ålesund, a scientific base in Svalbard, he said, “This is the center of change within the center of change.” He commented on climate change actions, “The steps that people are taking are not big enough fast enough. We have a huge distance to travel.”
As he does on nearly all his trips, Kerry combined a number of activities and purposes during this visit to Norway. He participated in the Oslo Forum, a meeting of world leaders that seeks to mediate and reduce conflicts, and met separately with the Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg for bilateral talks. They reviewed the situation in Syria and Iraq, and discussed the upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw, to be held early in July. This is a particularly important meeting for Norway, which is a charter member of NATO, though it does not belong to the European Union. For many, its location brings to mind the Warsaw Pact, the mutual defense treaty between the Soviet Union and the Communist countries of eastern Europe which served as a counterpart to NATO during the Cold War from 1955 to 1991.
While in Oslo, Kerry also spoke at a conference on deforestation, at which the American and Norwegian governments released a joint statement on Deeper Collaboration on Forests and Climate Change, affirming their commitment to Paris Agreement, stating their support of forests as carbon sinks, and discussing other issues such as aviation emissions. He then continued from Norway to Denmark for discussions with the prime minister and foreign minister; after that, he traveled to Ilulissat, Greenland, where he visited Jacobshavn Glacier, met with Greenlandic and Danish officials and conferred about climate issues in the Arctic. Danish sources reported that they also discussed the management of Thule, an American air force base in Greenland.
The Arctic’s importance to geopolitics
In an email interview. Rasmus Bertelsen, a political scientist at UiT-The Arctic University of Norway, emphasized the strategic aspects of Kerry’s visit, and its link to regional and global geopolitics.
“Kerry’s visits to Svalbard and Greenland reflect the superpower of the international system with global interests and engagements, also in the Arctic. The Arctic has for a long time been an integral part of the international political, economic and security system. Think of the Murmansk convoys of the Second World War or the strategic nuclear weapons and distant early warning systems during the Cold War. Svalbard commands the Barents Sea, and Greenland is important for missile defense,” Bertelsen wrote.
He continued: “Climate change highlights that the Arctic is also key to the global earth system, which is of strategic importance to the superpower whether its energy system or its vulnerability to climate change. From the perspective of the hosts, the two small Nordic Arctic states of the Kingdom of Denmark and the Kingdom of Norway, what is most striking is their inability to publicly coordinate and highlight these visits by the US Secretary of State. All the five Nordic small states are Arctic states, and the Arctic is another obvious arena for them for joint impactful action, which is unfortunately not realized.”
— US Mission to NATO (@USNATO) June 16, 2016
Tapping into Norwegian politics
Thomas Hylland Ericksen, an anthropologist at the University of Oslo and the president of the European Association of Social Anthropology, emphasized the significance of his visit for domestic Norwegian politics, where, as in many other parts of Europe, tensions between right- and left-wing parties are strong. He wrote:
“Yes, there has been some excitement, in some circles, around Kerry’s visit. The truth is, alas, that he is probably more progressive and proactive in the domain of climate change prevention than our current government [led since 2013 by the Conservative Party]. We have a minister of climate and the environment who is completely invisible — most people don’t even know his name — and a foreign minister who is competent enough, but more concerned with diplomacy and security than climate…There has been some press coverage of Kerry’s visit, but less than one might expect. On the far left, there have been complaints that he said things about Russia that might be perceived as threats, and that the militarisation of the far north is happening big time now.”
Security issues in the Barents region were discussed during the visit, according to Ericksen, as well as “the situation in the Middle East.” The Svalbard visit reportedly was the result of Kerry’s desire to “witness the effects of climate change [at Blomstrand Glacier] with his own eyes,” Ericksen wrote.
Ericksen indicated that this attention was welcomed by environmentalists in Norway. He wrote, “During the previous Labour-led coalition [which was in power from 2005 to 2013], the minister for environment and development, Erik Solheim, was in the media every day with some initiative or other. That media role has now been taken by the Progress Party minister for ‘integration’, a local Tea Party kind of politician called Sylvi Listhaug — pretty, smart and dangerous with her anti-immigration agenda.”
Kerry’s human curiosity
GlacierHub was also able to reach someone who was in Ny Ålesund during Kerry’s visit. Paul Wenzel Geissler, an anthropologist who works at Europe’s largest and northernmost arctic research station, following scientists who study birds and the effects of global pollutants on them. Geissler reported that he was “holed up” writing notes during the bulk of the secretary’s visit, “not because I hold any grudges against him, but because the presence of armed men on the higher buildings made me a little uncomfortable, and the fact that we were not allowed to carry weapons that day prevented me from going out of town. [Researchers carry rifles to protect themselves from the polar bears that wander all over Svalbard.] So, the closest I got to the event was being startled and subsequently calmed down by a camouflaged, though smiling, soldier with automatic weapons on his heavy neck jumping down the Polar Institute staircase, just as I thought myself alone in the building.”
Geissler said that colleagues recalled “pleasant” questions. “‘Who of the assembled scientists has lived up here longest?’ Then: ‘What are you actually doing?’ And even: ‘How do you catch the birds, and which are most difficult to catch?’” wrote Wenzel Geissler. “The latter question afforded a colleague, studying a particularly hard-to-catch top predator, to bring up legacy and emerging pollutants in Arctic seabirds – one of the key scientific issues here in the world’s northernmost community (however exactly that is defined). Happy that this massive threat – not just to seabirds – was raised in this sort of climate change dominated event.”
These three different perspectives complement each other. The Arctic is a region of intense jockeying among nations, as the region’s natural resources and shipping routes open up. Climate change issues are a topic that some political parties focus on closely but others ignore or dismiss. Despite the weight of these issues, the glaciers themselves and the organisms that live on or near them elicit curiosity and surprise on the part of visitors, even for major political figures with busy agendas.