Arctic Sovereignty: The Next Great Game – Recap of the Ford+SPPG Conference 2013

Natalia Segal

Due mainly to global warming, an environmental effect that has influenced the Arctic region faster than some other parts of the planet, the previously inaccessible Northwest Passage is opening up.  The Northwest Passage, a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans will (once we can navigate it) save valuable time and fuel for ships that now must travel through longer passages via Egypt or Central America.  These previously inaccessible shipping lanes and exposed abundances of natural resources such as oil, natural gas, gold, and diamonds, stand to entice expanded Maritime activity, increase international political interest and raise pressing questions around Arctic sovereignty with regards to matters of resource extraction, trade and navigation, environment, and security.  It was due to these tenacious questions and policy problems that Public Policy Masters students from the University of Michigan and the University of Toronto met for a two-day conference last weekend.

2013 marks the fourth year that the Ford+SPPG Conference brought together University of Michigan and University of Toronto policy students to tackle collective challenges faced by policy makers on both sides of the border. This year, I was fortunate to attend not only as a member of the planning committee but also as a conference participant.

We arrived at 5pm on Friday, March 22 and were greeted by warm and friendly faces, fabulous food and fantastic architecture.  The Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy is an awe-inspiring accumulation of gargantuan ceilings, immense chandeliers, expansive open communal spaces and comfortable couches and chairs.

Our introduction to the Conference consisted of the fantastic panel speakers and impressive Ford competition judges.  Friday afternoon’s professional conference presenters included:

  1. Henry Pollack, professor of geophysics at the University of Michigan, advisor to the National Science Foundation and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore – amazing! Mr Pollack has conducted scientific research on all seven continents and traveled to Antarctica on various occasions. Mr. Pollack spoke about how increased access to the Arctic’s treasures and the opening of the Northwest Passage affects intergovernmental relations and policy structures in terms of social policy, economic policy and others.
  2. Tom Clynes, an award-winning magazine writer and photographer who covers the adventurous side of science and environmental issues, is a contributing editor for Popular Science and a University of Michigan Wallace Journalism Fellow.  He has also authored the book Wild Planet.  Mr. Clynes discussed his upcoming feature story in National Geographic about the mining boom in the Yukon.

Ford faculty participants, who we were introduced to on the Friday as well, were equally extraordinary. Alan Deardroff, Professor and Associate Dean, acted as conference judge and panelist; Shirli Kopelman, Professor, facilitated Ford+SPPG Conference value-added negotiations workshop; Mel Levitsky, Ambassador and Professor, held a panelist role; Barry Rabe, Professor, acted as panelist and policy recommendations competition judge; Pamela Bryant, Senior Fellow and familiar face at SPPG, acted as judge; and Michael Baker, SPPG Acting Director, also provided his time and expertise to sit as judge of the Ford+SPPG competition.

At the end of our long Friday evening, Ford students were divided into eight competing policy options presentation groups under the following four categories: resource extraction, trade and navigation, environment, and security.  I landed security.  As soon as I saw my topic I thought of Mr. Pollack’s presentation.

“National security is the protection of land, people and national treasure,” he said. “People cannot be thought of as collateral damage.”  It seems to me then, that human rights are a national security issue.  This realization and Mr. Polack’s words remained with me for the duration of the conference.

On the following day, we gathered for breakfast early in the morning and, soon enough, split into our competition groups.  The presentations would be judged on the following criteria: feasibility of policy recommendations, creativity, clarity and organisation, strength of supporting evidence and the ability to handle questioning. By midday, each group was to present a slide demonstration and policy recommendations to the judges, panelists, and our fellow students.

As I watched the presentations unfold, it dawned on me how bright and inspiring the students were.  Indeed, if these are the hands that will make future policy, I am assured we’re in good hands.

Environmental groups tackled issues of polar bear extinction, ice-melt due to accelerated rates of global warming, disappearance of Arctic fisheries, sea level increases, tundra and glaciers and changing weather patterns as well as pollution, changes to biodiversity and living conditions for Indigenous populations.

Natural Resources groups analyzed  issues related to mineral extraction, energy and fisheries.  In particular, how enhanced access affects the above and policy options to best inform future actions.

Trade and Navigation policy groups considered investment and trade challenges, Arctic trade routes, international shipping regulations, US regulations and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The Arctic Security groups, including my group, discussed strategic defense, US-Canada /US-Russia border disputes, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the status of the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route.

In the second half of the day, students attended a workshop on negotiation skills and insights into the latest research on rational choice theories: the idea of culture as a major component of how different people from different cultures approach rationality in order to make their rankings and decisions.

By the end of the second day, exhausted and well-fed, the students took time to enjoy each other’s company; we didn’t only participate in a fabulous competition, learn interesting new theories and facts, and meet inspiring professionals, we made friends.  Friends are wonderful finds.

Natasha Segal is a 2014 MPP Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. She also holds a Masters of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing, a Bachelor Honours in Professional Communications and a Diploma in Social Services. Her interests include social policy, women’s rights, LGTB rights, creative non-fiction prose and photography.

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