Three researchers are sitting at the same table, two of them pointing their fingers at an open laptop screen.
Researchers of the CHARTER project have gone through dozens of Arctic reports and policy documents for their study. Photo: Sirpa Rasmus.

When everything affects everything, can Arctic policies keep up?

12.3.2024 15:08

The Arctic region is currently undergoing many changes. The interest they arouse is reflected in the number of reports and studies on the region. Are the reports able to look at complex phenomena as interrelated entities, and can the results of these studies feed into decision-making?

CHARTER is a major EU Horizon2020 project that has been running since 2020. Its main objective is to advance capacity of Arctic communities to climatic and biodiversity changes. 

At the same time, the project has explored how its key research themes are addressed in various reports, studies and policy documents. A study on this has just been published in the prestigious One Earth journal.

The researchers compared different Arctic assessment reports and policy guidelines. The purpose was to find out how these documents deal with land use in the northern region, biodiversity, climate change, and local communities and livelihoods, all together. In other words, how the complex linkages between these issues are addressed, rather than the issues separately.

– A vast number of reports on the latest scientific research aimed at decision-makers have been written on the Arctic region. Someone noted that no other region of the world has as many scientific assessments per capita as the Arctic in the world, says researcher Sirpa Rasmus from the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland.

In addition to assessment reports, there are Arctic strategies and action programs by a wide range of actors at different levels. Among these, the researchers selected 80 documents that fit the scope research in the CHARTER project.

– We were interested in learning whether such reports and policy guidelines would regard vital, complex matters as separate issues or as the interconnected and interlinked drivers of change they actually are, Rasmus continues.

According to Rasmus, it is important to understand how things are done in the ‘real world’ in the playing fields of government and politics. One goal of doing research is to influence decision-makers and take small steps for the better.

The role of local communities is overlooked

In a rapidly changing environment, Arctic communities and livelihoods are vulnerable. But they also have the potential to make a major contribution to mitigating climate change and halting habitat loss, if the opportunities are recognised and acknowledged, says Rasmus.

Reindeer grazing in a mountain landscape in winter.
The different ways of land use in the North have a major impact on the conditions for traditional livelihoods such as reindeer herding. Photo: Matti Kantola. 

According to the researchers who have studied the texts, the links between the issues most affecting the future of the Arctic are already quite well understood.

– There was even a surprising amount of “nexus thinking” in the documents , i.e. treating the above issues as an interrelated whole. However, some links were emphasised more strongly than others, Rasmus says.

The researchers also found big differences in the direction in which the impacts were thought to occur, or whether, for example, climate and biodiversity were seen as interacting in both directions. 

– What was particularly striking was how rarely local communities and livelihoods were seen as actors with the ability and power to influence these other big issues. Yet many traditional livelihoods have a strong influence on the surrounding environment and use the land extensively. Similarly, biodiversity was seen as a the 'victim'," says Rasmus.

What are the conclusions and what advice would the researchers give for future policy recommendations? 

– We think that decision-making and change-orientation would work better if we understood things and processed them as a whole, not as separate items. This kind of more holistic management would require much better understanding and communication across sectoral and national borders, and also at the local level. In the current situation, this may sound utopian, yet it is worth striving for, Rasmus says.


Policy documents considering biodiversity, land use, and climate in the European Arctic reveal visible, hidden, and imagined nexus approaches
One Earth, Volume 7, Issue 2, 16 February 2024, Pages 265-279