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Who is an expert on the Arctic?

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By Clive Tesar

Academic conferences such as this one are filled with experts. Experts in anthropology, law, sociology, education and several more disciplines. How do we know they’re expert? Because the vast majority have letters after their name that tell us so – there are more doctors here than in your average hospital (though I wouldn’t want these doctors performing surgery on me). But when it comes to telling the world about the Arctic, are these the right sort of experts?

The answer, as in so many answers in the world of studying people and what they do, is “it depends”. My own research, which I came to this social sciences convention to present, looks at how Indigenous people are perceived when they talk about the environment. Are people more inclined to believe Indigenous spokespersons because they’re Indigenous? The short answer to that question is “yes”. The longer answer is that is at least true for the mainstream and specialised US audiences I looked at. The specialised audience was particularly interesting to me, as it was made up of people who worked in US senators’ offices. These people hear a lot of opinions, as delegations troop through their offices every day. This is what one of them had to say after receiving a delegation of arctic Indigenous leaders: “Having listened to a bunch of people who are actually affected by the policy issue that they’re bringing to you, it’s much more powerful than just a lobbyist, or just a scientist.”

What was interesting in the research was that people I interviewed were not just affected because the people they spoke to were Indigenous, but also because they were ‘real’ people who had really experienced what they were talking about. These people had not studied the topic of climate change in their communities, they had not investigated other peoples’ experiences of change – they had lived the change. They had experienced change with the investigative tools open to all of us – eyes, ears, hands. This is what made them expert, and believable.

I am not suggesting that only people who have experienced topics of arctic research in a personal way should be considered experts. For a start, there are many topics that you cannot investigate only through experience, such as variations in thicknesses through the Arctic in a single season, or measurements of greenhouse gas concentrations. For the things that are too large scale, or not open to the investigative tools owned by all of us, we still need the experts with letters after their names. But for giving moving, eloquent, believable descriptions of the Arctic on a personal level, we also need the expertise of people who have lived, and continue to live in the Arctic.

The WWF Global Arctic Programme’s Head of Communications, Clive Tesar, attended the International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences in Iceland in order to track trends and the latest information about the peoples of the Arctic, as they are so central to WWF’s conservation efforts in this area.

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