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The Arctic in World Environmental History

PDF · Jonathan D. Greenberg · Jul-11-2012 · 42 VAND. J. TRANSNAT'L L. 1307 (2009)

This Article situates the Arctic in global environmental history across the long duration of time.

For millions of years, the Arctic has been the world’s most important “barometer of global change and amplifier of global warming.”[1] For twenty thousand years, the Arctic has been the homeland of modern human settlement, and it has played a central role in the interplay between global climate change and human migration throughout Eurasia and the Americas.  Since the late fifteenth century, Arctic aboriginal peoples, lands, and seas have been thoroughly integrated into the international history of European trade, capitalism, and colonization; the territorial expansion of modern nation states; and the transnational strategic history since the outset of the Cold War, including the continued basing of nuclear-armed missiles, bombers, and submarines throughout the Arctic region.

Appreciation of this international history can provide lessons for contemporary policymakers to help mitigate grave risks to human life and biodiversity in the Arctic and sub-Arctic.  For example, this Article calls for negotiations between the U.S., NATO, and the Russian Federation on the basis of Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1987 proposal to transform the Arctic into “a zone of peace” and, specifically, to establish “a nuclear free-zone in northern Europe.”[2]

In conclusion, this Article identifies how deeply embedded global systems of political economy and international relations continue to shape recent developments in the Arctic at this time of exacerbated climate change and resulting ecological crisis.  Appreciation of the Arctic’s environmental history can help decision-makers to more knowledgeably and effectively support indigenous self-determination, resource conservation, and environmental stewardship throughout the circumpolar bioregion.


[1].         Andrew Davies et al., Letter, Late Cretaceous Seasonal Ocean Variability from the Arctic, 460 Nature 254, 254 (2009).

[2].         Mikhail Gorbachev, Speech at the Presentation of the Order of Lenin and the Gold Star Medal to the City of Murmansk (Oct. 1, 1987), available at http://www.barentsinfo.fi/docs/Gorbachev_speech.pdf.




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