C2GTalk: An interview with Åsa Larsson Blind, Vice-President of the Saami Council

Why did the Saami Council oppose Harvard’s SCoPEx experiment?

12 December 2022

What philosophies guide you in your climate work?
What role should indigenous people play in the governance of Solar Radiation Modification (SRM)?
What role should technology play in addressing climate change?

This interview was recorded on 20 October 2022 and is also available with interpretation into 中文, Español and Français.

In 2021 the Saami Council effectively stopped in Sweden Harvard University’s outdoor Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx) which aimed to examine the behavior of stratospheric aerosols which could potentially be used to reflect back a portion of incoming sunlight to reduce global warming.  In a C2GTalk, Åsa Larsson Blind, vice-president of the Saami Council, explains why she was in opposition and underlines the importance of including indigenous people in climate governance.  

Åsa Larsson Blind is vice-president of the Saami Council. She has been a member of the Saami Council since 2008 and elected President in the period 2017-2019. She was first female elected chair of the National Sámi Association in Sweden 2019-2021, where she also was a board member in 2007-2011. Larsson Blind has been a member of the board of the Indigenous Peoples Secretariat under the Arctic Council and has long experience working in Sámi organizations, as board member of the Sámi Educational Center in Jokkmokk in 2007-2009, and board member of the Sámi Youth organization in Sweden, Sáminuorra in 2002-2007. Larsson Blind lives in Övre Soppero in the Swedish part of Sápmi, is part of a reindeer herding family and holds an MSc in Human Resources Management and Development.   

Below are edited highlights from the full C2GTalk interview shown in the video above. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Can you tell us about the Saami people and the Council and your work on climate change? 

 The Saami people are an indigenous people.  Our home areas are in northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and also the Kola Peninsula on the Russian side.  We are hunters and gatherers, we conduct reindeer herding, fishing.  We have lived off our traditional areas, and we still do.  That is the basis of our culture. 

Perhaps you could tell me a bit about how you see climate change affecting your region specifically both physically but also socially and economically?  

We see the implications and the consequences of climate change year-round.  As everyone is now aware the Arctic is in the forefront of climate change since warming is more rapid here.  We are living, coping, and adapting to climate change already, so this is very much something that we feel in our everyday life.  My family are reindeer herders, and we are still dependent on weather and wind for our daily work, so of course when it (“it” as in the climate) changes it changes our everyday conditions. 

To what extent does the Saami Council help design and implement climate policy in your country but also regionally and internationally? 

The Saami Council is a nongovernmental organization (NGO) and indigenous peoples organization (IPO).  We have been around since 1956.  We promote Saami rights and Saami culture and indigenous peoples’ rights and cultures in everything we do, and we are deeply connected to the work of climate change and environmental protection through United Nations processes, through the Convention on Biological Diversity and also the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  We currently hold the Arctic representation in the Facilitative Working Group under the local communities and indigenous peoples’ platform of the UNFCCC.  

Of course, not to forget The Arctic Council, where we are one of the six indigenous peoples’ organizations, and we have been with it from the start.  So we are deeply committed to this work, and we are working with it broadly internationally but of course also in Sámpi, and working with and toward our governments here in Sápmi. 

Can you say a little bit about how you see indigenous peoples in the Arctic region but also beyond, cooperating, collaborating, establishing shared interests, and then essentially influencing and being heard in international meetings? 

We have very strong international cooperation between our brothers and sisters of indigenous peoples around the world.  We are organized under these international processes in indigenous caucuses and those are also intertwined between these processes so we are very much collaborating and we have strong unity and united positions in many of the important parts of climate change and also rights of culture and so forth. 

From an indigenous perspective we are ready to participate and we are very skilled to do so, but unfortunately in many of these fora and many of these discussions we are still in the process of discussing the right to participate, and that in my view is something that is holding back these issues because I see from a Saami perspective but also from our indigenous brothers and sisters from other parts of the globe that we are so ready to contribute, bringing our solutions and our indigenous knowledge to the table.  That would be so beneficial to the discussion. 

In early 2021 the Saami Council came to prominence among people studying these emerging approaches to alter the climate when you launched a petition to shut down the Harvard University’s Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx).  It was an effort to explore how aerosols might behave in the stratosphere as part of a theoretical new approach known as stratospheric aerosol injection.  This was happening over the skies of Sweden. Essentially stratospheric aerosol injection is a controversial idea to potentially reduce the global temperature quickly by reflecting some sunlight into space, but it could also have harmful unintended side effects.  At present we only have computer models to indicate these potential benefits and risks both known and unknown. Can you tell me how you first heard about this experiment, and then maybe we will talk about the events that led to your opposition and its eventual cancellation?  

We heard about this experiment through our international network of indigenous brothers and sisters.  We got an email saying, “This is about to happen, and this is something you should look into.”  From there it was a steep learning curve. 

 Once you got this email how did you go about learning?  Describe to me your journey on this steep learning curve. 

We read about what this was.  Of course we also had great help from indigenous friends who had been and are involved in this discussion and also from our network of other NGOs and environmental organizations that are working with these issues and that we are currently working with on other issues as well. 

When we understood what kind of technology it was and what this quite limited experiment was that they wanted to do here in Sápmi we quite directly felt that this is not something that falls into what we see as part of the work toward a sustainable future.  This is not something that falls into what we feel is respectful toward Mother Earth, and that is why we chose to raise our voices. 

What kind of reactions did you get when you started raising your voices and expressing this opposition? 

We sent letters to the responsible research group, to the facilities where they were planning these experiments, and also to the Swedish government, asking if this was part of climate policy going forward since this had been nowhere in the discussions so far.  This was totally a new approach, we had not heard of it, and as far as I know this was not something that was discussed then or now either in climate discussions locally or regionally, and I have not heard it nationally either.  The reaction was respectful, but I think people were surprised that we reacted to it, but also with an understanding with our argument that this is part of a much larger discussion that is yet to be had. 

 In terms of your opposition — you described just now as to the reasons why — is it more to do with how this fit into the broader direction that humanity is taking on climate change, or were there any actual specific concerns that you had about the experiment itself and the potential impacts of that experiment? 

The experiment itself was very limited I believe, without being a total expert on that, and I had not understood that it would have had implications on the environment here.  That was not the reason.  The reason was that this was done or planned to be very clearly a part of developing solar geoengineering technology, and that idea is something that goes against what we believe, from the Saami Council side of our chosen way forward, and not what we see as what we should be targeting and what we should be doing when it comes to combating climate change. 

Our focus is to protect the natural ecosystem and to secure and safeguard the natural environment, and all measures that we should be taking now should be respectful of our natural environment. But we don’t see that in the ideas of developing this technology.  We don’t see that it is targeting the root causes of climate change, and we don’t see that it actually is done respectfully toward the environment. 

As you weighed up your opposition and reasons for it, within that decision making as to how you would proceed, did you also consider essentially the defense that some would have of this, as well about things we don’t know, that there should be scientific research to help learn more about what we do know and don’t know and in terms of the argument perhaps this might be done — I don’t think anyone is claiming it would be a solution — to help reduce risks while the solution is aimed at?  I am trying to get a sense of, first of all, to what extent do you think there could be some implications of opposing scientific research, and then more broadly do you think there are any conditions under which you might not oppose an experiment like this? 

There is a need for technology development, and there is clearly a need and we see that in climate discussions broadly, the great importance of research.  This is not something that we question at all. 

What we do oppose is the direction toward technologies that do not actually target the root causes of climate change and the great amount of resources that are put into what could be seen as feeding into the idea of a quick fix and the over belief of technology being the main solution, also then taking away the importance of the parallel transition of the society toward a more sustainable way of living.  We cannot downplay the need for change and we need to realize that the solution of this crisis is a change in societal structures. 

Of course we need new technologies and of course we also need research, and we need to listen to the researchers.  We have extensive research saying that we need to cut emissions and that we need to change the economical structures on Earth, scrutinize power balances, and take action, and they have been saying that for quite some time now. 

Our fear is that when we now have researchers saying that we might not need to change that much and that we could actually with new technology monitor and manage the whole Earth to the extent of also controlling the atmosphere.  For me that is not learning from what researchers have been saying what we need to do now, that we need to take a step back, to find a way back to respect the boundaries of Earth, that we have overused the world’s resources, we have overexploited for too long, and that is what has been putting us into this climate crisis.  It is the mindset of humans entitled to control everything on earth and not needing to respect the Earth’s boundaries. 

Whatever we do now should be guided by the principle and the guiding question: Is this a measure that will help get us back on-track in respecting the boundaries of the Earth’s resources, even if it is in the long term?  I don’t see that this kind of technology does that actually. 

I would like to ask a couple more questions about this relationship between technology, nature, and Mother Earth.  In your petition to stop the experiment you noted: “Our indigenous worldview has taught us that humans are part of nature, we need to live respectfully and not exploit natural resources so that we can hand over healthy ecosystems to future generations, and solar geoengineering technology puts humans as masters of nature to control the whole Earth, even the atmosphere, which is completely new and foreign for us.”  This is what you also just eloquently stated. 

Some might counter that we are already living in the Anthropocene Era, whereby humans are already the biggest determinant of changes to the earth system, and that the choice might not be so much between interference and noninterference but just how you manage it.  One futurologist famously made the argument: “We are as gods.  We have to get good at it.” 

I would be very interested to learn more about how you view the duality or non-duality of technology and nature given that technology is always implemented within nature and comes from nature I suppose in some ways.  I would be very interested to hear more about your insights and the insights that you have learned from indigenous peoples as to how you manage the relationship between the two. 

I always circle back to respect.  You should always have the guiding questions: Is this technology and this way of using technology — that could also be the case — done with respect?  Will it help get us toward the ultimate goal of reaching a more sustainable society than we have now, or is it only maintaining the status quo?  Is it maintaining business as usual?  Is it maintaining structures that we know have led us into this crisis? 

In my view the goal is to preserve, safeguard, and protect the natural ecosystems and to secure and promote biodiversity on Earth that we know is in crisis.  All steps that we take and all technologies that we use should have these guiding questions.  Technology is for me a tool.  It should not be controlling or steering.  When we have come so far that we see ourselves as gods that for me is a very clear signal to stop and reflect.  Of course we have the possibilities and the opportunities, but we should not lose the guiding principles: What is the goal in this?  What is the aim of living a good life? 

I think the crucial element of this is governance and how one goes about inclusive governance of science in the future.  With regard to respect and impact on nature and for life the scientists I have spoken to in this field would argue that they see that as a priority too, and they are trying to find out whether there could be less harm caused by a cooler world with solar radiation modification (SRM) or dealing with a hotter world without SRM given the realities that they face. 

In a sense you are both arguing from, to some degree, a similar position: respect for nature, maintenance of biodiversity, reduction of suffering, and so on.  I am wondering how two very well-intentioned groups of people — or at least I think the scientists I have met seem well-intentioned — can have such different positions on whether or not to do research on something like this.  Do you recognize that they might also see this as a way to protect nature and that this is just a dialogue between reasonable minds, or do you think there is something else going on there potentially? 

I think that researchers do what they do.  They find knowledge gaps and try to look at opportunities or the potential of bridging those gaps.  That is exactly what researchers should do, and it is what we need research to do. 

But then it is up to the global community to discuss what kind of knowledge we want to use and what is potentially helpful and what is not.  I don’t see that there is a question of research or not or technology or not, but it is of course a question of what do we see as part of the pathway forward?  I would say that there is no conflict at all in research or not in that sense.  Everyone is trying to find the best way forward.  In that sense we need to have these discussions where different voices need to be heard because we need to have also a balanced way forward. 

It was interesting to hear that you first heard of this via an email from your network rather than being approached by another party involved in the experiment.  If you could step back, what would a more inclusive process have looked like from the outset?  How might you have heard about this and been informed about this in a way that might have felt more inclusive?  

I would say that the inclusive way of discussing this is for the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples in the international fora, where these discussions should be taking place, and where the governance discussions need to take place.  This was not a question we had been discussing at all.  I know that it had been previously discussed at least in some way under the Convention on Biological Diversity, but despite that it has to my knowledge not been up for discussion that much. 

This is something we raised when we started discussing this, that we see the need for a global discussion on these topics because of the potential of new technology being part of the solution but also the consequences of the technologies if they were to be developed and used.  We raised our voices in this discussion not because we would be more affected if it was to be used but that we would also be affected.  We raised our voices and started discussing this because we of course had a right to air our concerns and our views of what is needed in the climate change discussion, what should we be doing, but also out of a sense of responsibility, that we as indigenous peoples, as peoples among other peoples of the world, we are in this crisis together, and we all have a responsibility to bring our solutions to the table, our knowledge about what should be done and not done. 

What is happening now worldwide is that indigenous peoples are being kept out of contributing to these discussions.  I would say this is a limitation to climate change discussions because indigenous peoples — as other peoples of the world — have so much to contribute with to these discussions, and there is the need for including different voices and also indigenous peoples when we are discussing technology development and other climate actions.  Unfortunately we are still discussing and arguing for the right for full and effective participation, and we need to get beyond that. 

I would be interested in your thoughts of the right to say no and who might have that under what conditions — one thing is a broad governance discussion but in terms of who can say no to something, whether an experiment or so forth.  How do you see the relationship between local peoples where the experiment was going to take place, the Saami people and obviously those you are working with, and then the sense of a broader global discussion as to whether this might or might not help advance knowledge?  Do you think there is a particular or a greater right to say no of local people in an area where that experiment would take place for an experiment that could have global consequences? 

I am not sure if I am expressing myself correctly, but I think you might get the idea.  How do you balance the needs of people in let’s say tropical countries with the local concerns of the Saami people? 

Once again I think the only way to balance this is to make sure that different voices and peoples concerned are part of the decision-making discussion.  Of course it is always something that needs to be balanced.  Everyone lives somewhere, and we are all part of the crisis, even if we are feeling and experiencing it differently depending on where we live today.  There are already climate refugees in the world.  We in the Arctic feel the changes now.  There are people on earth who are still talking about climate change as something to come. 

I think to join different voices in discussing these issues is the only way forward, and we need these global fora — and we have structures for it — that of course could be amended to be more inclusive, but I do believe we could have structures for it.  I think that this opportunity to decide needs also to be linked to the responsibility of balancing risks and taking different voices into account because we have heard many scientists state that what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.  That is the same for other parts of the earth.  We see deserts only getting larger in other parts of the world, and we see the need for protecting the rainforests.  I think we need to talk about it as a common responsibility. 

Discussions will continue in some form on solar radiation modification technology approaches.  What do you think would be the most appropriate fora for that discussion?  Do you have any specific sense of how indigenous voices might be better heard in those fora? 

I believe that any discussions on different kinds of technology need to be lifted into the discussions where we discuss climate action already, and we need also to bring together different parts of the research community because we have the natural scientists and the social scientists, and we need to bring also into that discussion indigenous knowledge, and we need to make decisions for the future on the best available knowledge.  We cannot take balanced and well-informed decisions if we have discussions in silos.  So we need to bring our experts together. 

Also we need to realize that technology can only be a tool for the long-term goal.  It can never be the sole solution, but it will be — I am sure of it — part of the solution.  Maybe not solar radiation management but other kinds of research and technology are already a big part of managing the climate crisis and I am sure will be also going forward, but with the always guiding question: Is this leading toward the long-term goal?  Is this leading to true sustainability?  Is this respectful?  Will this help us connect with Mother Earth?  Will this help us get back to living within the boundaries?  Will this help us not overexploit anymore? 

I wonder if I could finish on a more personal note.  I find it so interesting to hear how different people manage issues of anxiety, grief, fear, and hope around the climate crisis.  It is such a difficult topic when you dig into it and see the extent of the problem.  It can take quite a personal toll on professionals working in the field.  How do you personally balance acknowledging the depth of the crisis but maintaining a sense of hope? 

I also perhaps wonder if I could expand it.  Do we see any lessons from the Saami communities and how they have learned to navigate issues of anxiety, grief, and loss seeing the changes around them while at the same time maintaining some agency and hope that they can work against these changes happening? 

 In the Saami culture we are dependent on our area, and we are still living our traditional livelihoods like reindeer herding that are sustained by our natural surroundings, our natural environment.  We have this link to our territory, so in that sense we have no choice other than to believe that there is a way forward that will also protect our areas and our natural ecosystems and that will let us give them forward to future generations. 

In our culture we talk about seven generations back and seven generations forward.  That makes us part of a much bigger universe than only us here and now.  We have teachings from way back that help guide us, and we also have the clear goal that generations coming after us should also have the possibility to sustain themselves in these areas, and that helps us to be humble. 

We usually talk about that we are “borrowing” the land from our children.  That is some of the respect that we want to spread to other parts of the society that may not have this link anymore and connection to their environment.  I believe we can find that again.  There are so many peoples around the world who still have these teachings, and I believe that finding your place in your society and also in your environment helps you to not lose hope. 

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