Arctic Mobilities and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Ethics for a Warming Planet

Mimi Sheller

Originally post on The Rule of Law.

Scientists now recognize that the Arctic is heating up more than twice as fast as any other region. As average land temperatures shift to more than 1.9 degrees Celsius (3.4 degrees Fahrenheit) above the historic baseline, Arctic researchers have come to recognize that the “region is moving from a climate that is characterized less by ice and snow and more by open water and rain” (Fountain 2020, A13).

By 2018 hundreds of ships were already navigating the northern passage through the not-so-frozen Arctic Sea, and it is predicted that by mid-century there will be not just a Northwest Passage along the coastline but a trans-Arctic passage cutting straight across the North Pole, “the first time in 2.6 million years that the Arctic Ocean has lacked any sea cover.” (Bennett 2019). As early as the 2030s, it may be possible in the summer months “to sail in a regular vessel across the top of the Earth.” What are the implications of this? And how should we approach understanding how those implications are affecting the region and its people? As explained below, “mobility studies,” or the study of the movement of human populations, has an essential role in the answer.

Indigenous communities and Far North settlers have been grappling with the consequences of climate change for some time. Private sector businesses, too, have begun to seize the opportunities offered, opening new shipping routes, building freight ports, and buying oil drilling leases. Chinese policy documents already refer to the “Polar Silk Road” and the “Central Arctic Passage.” At the heart of these and other regional changes are transformations in how people and things move, summed up by the word “mobilities.” The new interdisciplinary field of “mobility studies” addresses not just human movement (by land, sea, or air) but also how it is connected to the movements of vessels and vehicles, the migrations of wild and herded animals, and the ever-shifting planetary and geological mobilities of the earth itself in a world where even the North Pole is on the move (Witze 2019). These complex and intertwined mobilities are crucial  for understanding the future of the Arctic as the ice melts and human activity increasingly moves into the Arctic Sea and across the thawing ice, tundra, and Boreal forests.

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