Arctic Review on Law and Politics (Nov 2016)

Transformational Change and Regime Shifts in the Circumpolar Arctic

  • Annika E. Nilsson,
  • Timo Koivurova

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 7, no. 2
pp. 1 – 17


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The Arctic is changing rapidly, and there are many indications that the region is in the midst of transformational change. While some of the focus relates to impacts of climate change, rapid economic development and the potential for shifts in political and social structures in the region have also been in the limelight. This article looks at the circumpolar Arctic as a potential case of a regime shift in a large-scale social–ecological system that includes reinforcing feedbacks. A special focus is placed on governance structures, as these play an important role in social negotiations on the relationship between societies and the environment. While climate change is often portrayed as a driver of social change in the Arctic, it does not appear that the ongoing changes in the biophysical features of the Arctic region have rocked current circumpolar governance structures out of kilter. On the contrary, the ongoing climate-related changes, in particular sea ice decline, appear to have reinforced political commitment to existing legal structures. Major past social regime shifts have mainly been related to access to resources and national identity ideology, with political dynamics reinforced at times by military security considerations.