To fly or not to fly? Climate change education visit to the Farthest North

17 May 2022
Snow covered mountains

Where better to consider the place of climate and environmental education in the experience of young people than in Longyearbyen, the globe's northernmost civilian settlement and the fastest heating town in the world?

Dr Simon Boxley, Senior Lecturer in Education and Head of the University's Centre for Climate Change Action and Education, discusses his new study in our latest blog post.

To fly or not to fly? When the call went out for bids for the final tranche of Erasmus+ EU moneys for research visits to other European institutions, I performed some mental gymnastics in considering the ethics.

Yes, a 'climate-conscious researcher' should burn up as few airmiles as possible, yet here was an opportunity to travel in the interests of academic environmental work. Someone was going to fly with this money, I rationalised, so why not use the Erasmus funding to research cutting-edge climate change education in the fastest heating town in the world?

That town is also the globe's northernmost civilian settlement and the home of the most northerly higher education institution -the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS): Longyearbyen.

Look it up on the map.... Yes, it really is that far north. The pitch darkness of polar night lasts two and a half months. Having won the Erasmus research grant, however, I'm taking the flight in June, when the sun is high in the sky 24/7, on a day already begun in fact - for even as I write this in April, the sun won't set over Longyearbyen until August.

One of my philosophical heroes is Arne Næss. Back in 1994, when far fewer researchers were concerned with the part they played in contributing to global climate change, he framed the problem far more clearly than I. Participating in a unique ecosophical symposium in Longyearbyen - Deep Ecology in the High Arctic. The Planetary Challenge: How do we Change Attitudes? - he said "[t]o meet here at Svalbard can... only be justified as an expression of resolve to contribute to the dissemination of views favourable to the preservation of a largely intact Arctic and Antarctic." (Næss, 1994, p.14).

Nearly thirty years later, and with attitudes barely changed, the only justification, the only justification for me to fly to Svalbard remains to contribute through educational work to the dissemination of views favourable to the Arctic's survival. The pace of attitudinal change may have been glacial, but even the adjective seems increasingly misplaced, as the glaciers of Svalbard themselves are in rapid retreat, and the hope of holding on to an 'intact Arctic' seems a distant memory.

In some ways, Longyearbyen is just an ordinary Scandinavian hometown, its two thousand residents go about their work, visit the coffee shops and bars, but all among the most fragile of ecosystems, that of the High Arctic.

As a biome, the High Arctic is delineated by the July isotherm (average temperatures in the short summer do not exceed 4 degrees in the Eurasian High Arctic), so the very region is shrinking and its unique ecosystem retreating towards a terrifying vanishing point. Temperatures have already risen some 4.8 degrees above pre-industrial levels and are predicted to increase by a staggering 10 degrees by the century's end. Tragically, the death of a two-year-old girl and forty-two-year-old man in Longyearbyen's devastating 2015 avalanche marked its first climate related fatalities.

Perversely, the appeal of the town for tourists and potential residents grows with its increasing accessibility, and ice-free shipping lanes. The North Pole, just 500 miles from the top of Svalbard, will be an expanse of open water in perhaps a decade. Unimaginable to those of us brought up on tales of Amundsen's quest to reach it in 1926.

Indeed, who knows, perhaps Longyearbyen, and the few other settlements in the far north - Iqaluit, Qaanaaq, maybe even the godforsaken Dikson, Tiksi, or Belushya Buba in Russia - will become the retreats of the superrich a century from now, in their escape to cooler climes. I hope not.

There is a deep irony in that when Europeans settled, or colonised such places, it was to exploit coal reserves. Until the early 1990s when tourism began to assume economic predominance, Longyearbyen was every bit the northern industrial town, centred around the coal pits. One - Gruve 7 - remains operational up the Advent valley just out of town, until at least next autumn. Its continuing reliance on this coal makes the world's fastest heating town also one of Europe's most unsustainable.

For Longyearbyen's inhabitants, the everyday experience of global warming is at the centre of their lives. Every aspect of employment - whether tourism, mining, or the flourishing research and education sector - is shaped by its relationship to the High Arctic's changing climate. Whilst some of its immediate risks - landslides and permafrost-melt subsidence - may not be the same as ours, further south, the existential threat to ways of life, habits, attitudes, the very reason to be in a place, these all presage challenges that we must confront in the coming years.

So where better to consider the place of climate and environmental education in the experience of young people? I have already had the pleasure of teaching remotely at the Longyearbyen folkehøgskole, and in June I intend to interview a handful of educators across different age phases.

All have been selected for their particular interest and expertise in climate education. I want to understand how they see their roles and their responsibilities in changing those attitudes that exercised the mind of Arne Næss thirty years ago, and how they go about preparing for an uncertain future in the High Arctic world which will not exist thirty years hence.

Næss, A. (1994) The Arctic Dimension Outside and Inside Us. In Stoltz, E. & Buzza, R. (Eds.) Proceedings of 'Deep Ecology in the High Arctic. The Planetary Challenge: How do we Change Attitudes? 1994 International Ecosophical Symposium. Svalbard, Norway, 19 August - 2 September. Longyearbyen: The Norwegian Polar Institute. Pp. 13-19.

Photo: Chris Marquardt on Unsplash.

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