German Involvement in the Arctic: Policy Issues and Scientific Research

By Dr Kathrin Keil

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When the German Foreign Office asked me in March whether I would like to become a member of the Working Group on Sustainable Arctic Development in the German Observer Delegation of the Arctic Council, of course I did not hesitate. What a splendid opportunity for an Arctic scholar to experience Arctic governance first-hand! Even better, this position fits perfectly with the research that the IASS has been doing on the linkages between Arctic and non-Arctic actors and processes.

But what is the role of the Arctic generally in German politics and research? Over the last two decades the shrinking of the Arctic sea ice has become an increasingly important topic in northern regions of the planet – and not just for the political agenda of the eight Arctic Council states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the USA). Recent debates about possibly brewing conflicts have made this clear. Further, in August Russia submitted a renewed claim to extend its sovereignty rights in the Arctic Ocean based on the extent of the continental shelf. But even traditionally non-Arctic states such as Germany have increased their involvement in Arctic matters, particularly in the area of foreign policy and research policy.

German Foreign Policy and the Arctic

In September 2013 the Foreign Office published a pamphlet on “Germany’s Arctic Policy Guidelines” with a subtitle proclaiming “Assume Responsibility, Seize Opportunities.” In it, the German government emphasizes the growing importance of the Arctic for the international community in the light of climate change, which is having a particularly severe effect in the far north. It aims to “take the specific nature of the Arctic into account and to make it a central focus of German policy” (p. 1). Like all the other actors, Germany is faced with the challenge of reconciling its economic interests, which would favour increasing exploitation of the region’s resources, with the need to take measures to protect an environment that was fragile to begin with.

German Research and Research Networks in the Arctic

In 2011 the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) published a paper on “Rapid Climate Change in the Arctic: Polar Research as a Global Responsibility,” in which polar research is assigned the status of a top priority in the BMBF framework program Research for Sustainable Development (FONA). This is one reason why more and more research institutions in Germany are turning their attention to Arctic issues, including disciplines such as the social sciences which had previously shown little interest in the topic. In addition to the longstanding Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), which has studied the Arctic for more than 30 years, and the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Marine Research Kiel, the IASS (sponsored by the FONA program of the BMBF) has increasingly established itself since 2009 as a source of expert knowledge on Arctic issues such as sustainability, governance, resources, and air pollution. The German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) has certainly also been a trendsetter with its participation in the international research projects Geopolitics in the High North (2008–2012) and the Research Centre NORDEN (RENOR) (2013–2015).

At the same time, German Arctic researchers are embracing interdisciplinary collaboration. For example, in summer 2014 a two-week summer school on “Arctic in the Anthropocene” was held in Potsdam; the organizers included the IASS, the AWI, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ), the University of Potsdam, and the city of Potsdam. AWI and IASS took advantage of this first-time collaboration to develop a research project with the Jade University of Applied Sciences on “Governance of Resources for Arctic Sustainable Policy and Practice (GRASP).” In addition, the AWI, the IASS, the Potsdam-based International Arctic Science Committee (IASC), the Ecologic Institute in Berlin, and the Canadian Embassy in Berlin organized a series of Arctic-related events in Berlin and Potsdam in 2014 and 2015 as part of the “Arctic Discussion Series.” Together with the WWF, the Ecologic Institute and the Canadian Embassy have also hosted the “Arctic Summer College” since 2013, with participants from both Germany and around the world.

In addition to formal collaborations on research projects, informal networks and forums have also developed as an effective means to bring together young German Arctic researchers in particular. Prominent among this is the e-mail listserv “Polarforum,” which researchers use to plan collaborative conference papers and other projects.

Teaching the Arctic at German Universities

In addition to research activities there are also an increasing number of courses being offered on Arctic topics at universities in Germany. For example, students at the University of Potsdam, the Freie Universität Berlin, Bielefeld University, the Universität der Bundeswehr München, and the Technische Universität Dresten can take Arctic-related courses in political science and international relations. Kiel University and the Universities of Marburg, Freiburg, and Jena provide students with an introduction to international law and the law of the sea in the Arctic. And of course geography and climate research are well-established in the curricula of German universities such as Goethe University Frankfurt, the Universities of Potsdam and Bremen, and PIK, AWI, and GEOMAR.

German-Language Publications on the Arctic

As suggested above, in the research, and therefore also the literature, on the Arctic, the natural sciences have been long represented by major institutions such as the AWI (even if the language of publication is frequently English). There have already been a number of important contributions to Arctic topics in German in the field of the social sciences, such as the 2011 report on “Herausforderungen und Optionen für Governance in der Arktis” by the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt; a volume entitled “Logbuch Arktis – Der Raum, die Interessen und das Recht” of the journal Osteuropa in 2011; and special issues “Auf dünnem Eis” (2009) and “Zaungast in der Arktis – Deutschlands Interessen an Rohstoffen und Naturschutz” (2011) in the journal Internationale Politik. However, the number of publications is rapidly increasing. Typical of this trend is the September 2015 issue of Sicherheit und Frieden (S + F) on “Die Arktis: Regionale Kooperation oder Konflikt?” in which six of the seven articles appear in German; all of the German-speaking authors chose to write their contributions in German rather than in English. Similarly, Springer VS published a German volume on Klimawandel und Sicherheit in der Arktis in August 2015.

The Growing Linkages between Science, Politics, and Society

Finally, networks and cooperation between German Arctic researchers and representatives of politics and society are increasing. Since 2012, the AWI, together with the IASS and the SWP Berlin, has organized regular “Arctic Dialogue” workshops in which representatives of all the German federal ministries come together with German Arctic researchers to discuss current issues in Arctic research and policy. An additional initiative, also started by the AWI and jointly organized with the IASS and the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, is a “Parliamentary Evening on the Arctic” planned for 2016 which aims to build and expand contacts within the German Bundestag. And, as mentioned above, the German Foreign Office works closely with researchers to increase the participation of German delegations in the various working groups, task forces, and expert groups of the Arctic Council. Thus, they are able to fulfill the goals set out in their framework policy to increase the role of German observers in the Arctic Council.

German policymakers and researchers are becoming more active in Arctic issues and in so doing are not only creating networks with international actors in the Arctic, but increasingly also building collaborations within the world of German science, politics, and society. In view of the challenges that face the Arctic, it is essential for all actors to intensify their engagement. For ultimately, thanks to the interconnectedness of the global climate system, the changes happening in the Arctic are not limited to the far north; rather, consequences such as alterations in weather patterns have the potential to affect those of us in the middle latitudes as well.

Header photo: Karsten Häcker

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