Czech-in the Arctic: Interview with Jan Dusik

By Alisa Musanovic

Alisa Musanovic 

I’m with Jan Dusík, who is currently the Interim Director of the Arctic Programme at the Worldwide Fund for Nature. He has worked in the UN Environment Programme and is also a former Czech politician in the Ministry of Environment. Could you tell us a bit more about yourself and your career?

I studied at law school and also did a Master of Science later on at Oxford University. But right after law school, I joined the Ministry of Environment of the Czech Republic. That was the time of accession negotiations for the European Union accession. I was in charge of that, and later, I helped prepare for the first Czech presidency of the European Union in 2009. I was also in politics for a short time; I was a Minister of the caretaker government for several months. After that, I got a job in the UN Environment Programme, where I spent over eight years altogether, first working as the Regional Director of the programme for Europe. During the last two years at the UN, I was focusing on the Arctic and Antarctic. After that, I moved to the WWF Arctic programme, where I’ve now been for two years (starting as the Sustainable Development Lead, then Governance Lead and now the Interim Director). So, it’s kind of a logical continuation from what I was doing at UNEP. 

Is there any reason why you started to specialise in the Arctic?

Yes. One function that I had as the Regional Director was representing UNEP as the Observer of the Arctic Council in some of the meetings and understanding how the global agenda of UNEP is connected with Arctic matters. Then, I gradually saw how Arctic issues are so interconnected with the global environmental agenda. At that time, UNEP had an Executive Director, Erik Solheim from Norway, who wanted to put more emphasis on dealing with Arctic matters – that’s when he appointed me as his advisor on the Arctic and Antarctic. It was at that time that I became specialised in the topic. In a way, it has become a passion, understanding the complexity of the Arctic and the great pace of change taking place there. 

What was the Czech approach to the Arctic when you worked in the Ministry of Environment?

From the perspective of the Ministry of Environment at least, it was very limited. I know that there were more relationships with Antarctica because of the Antarctic Treaty and the Czech research stations that were doing environmental research. I remember at the time of the Czech EU presidency, one of the files we were working on concerned the import of skins of seal pups into the European Union. There was a draft EU regulation that was very controversial from the side of the Inuits; Canada was advocating against the adoption of the regulation, and it got very politicised. It was the Czech presidency that had to deal with that file, which at the time felt very remote for a country that is landlocked. 

Of course, there are other connections such as long-range transboundary air pollution, which has been a big issue for the Czech Republic, particularly concerning how pollutants travel through Europe, northwards and southwards. What’s happening with the environment in the Czech Republic has implications far away, including in the Arctic. Obviously, climate change and the whole effort to decarbonise is something which is, and already was then, relevant for what happens with the changing Arctic. But it was less so, and at that time, the efforts of the Czech Republic to become Observer of the Arctic Council were not advanced at all. This has come about in the last several years. 

How much has Czech Arctic engagement developed since you were in government?

It has developed. Still, if you look at the landscape of people in the Czech Republic who deal with or engage in Arctic matters, it would mainly be a combination of scientists, researchers, students and travellers (such as people going on expeditions). It’s less of a formal structure. Even if you take the coordinator of Arctic matters in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Zdeněk Lyčka, it’s not his main job that he is assigned to – he does it out of his passion for exploring the Arctic region. He was the Ambassador to Denmark and visited Greenland several times. It’s more of an enthusiasm than a firm governance structure. Only in the most recent, let’s say, five years, has the political dimension come, mainly due to the increased interest of the EU to be a player in the Arctic. This wider EU interest has included not only European institutions, but also the EU member states within the Arctic Council as well as countries generally interested in Arctic matters.

What has your experience been like working with environmental policy initially on a national and later international scale?

As I mentioned, I started my professional career at the time that Czech Republic was preparing for EU accession. At that moment, the government realised that all of the legislation would need to be changed to comply with the European Union’s requirements. There had been a first wave around 1990-1992, when the first environmental legislation was approved. The second wave came with the accession to the European Union, which basically brought the legislation to compatibility with the EU, and I was part of that effort. Of course, this was good for the environment. It was perceived as a hindrance to economic development, but it was also seen as an obligation to the European Union, so it was kind of tolerated. I think stronger environmental policy has now become more mainstream, but still the EU requirements are the main driver pushing our national environmental policy to more stringent standards. 

When I joined the UN, all of a sudden, I didn’t need to advocate why we should push for stricter environmental standards. I mean explain, yes, but it was not a kind of juxtaposition between environment or economic development and the disputes with the economic parts of the government or economic players in the country. I think that’s a particular feature which is strong in the Eastern European countries, that this mental shift of doing it for the wellbeing of people and for a common good that extends beyond national boundaries still hasn’t fully happened. That’s a key difference which I can observe between the West and the East. 

What has the transition, from working with organisations linked to governments to working for an NGO, been like for you? 

I didn’t know exactly what to expect as a kind of shift. WWF is a big organisation. It’s a network, and it is much more decentralised – that’s a big difference. It’s more informal, which probably wouldn’t surprise anyone comparing it to the UN. Still, it also has a robust structure and procedures, and there is a certain degree of bureaucracy, but it’s leaner and I would say it’s more based on trust and a kind of goodwill. Often when we talk to our colleagues at WWF, we refer to one another as ‘Pandas’ all united behind a common cause. Of course, in the UN, you have the UN values, but then you have the different organisations dealing with the environment, agriculture or human rights. And it’s bigger and more dispersed, so it’s understandable that these kind of common UN values only go so far, but then everyone follows their own particular directions. I would say that would be the biggest difference. Interestingly, in the Arctic environment, I found that WWF engagement is somewhat easier than UN engagement, because there is still a notion that the UN should not encroach on governance in the Arctic – that it’s the Arctic countries who should decide. And WWF is seen as an advisor; there is less of a danger that it could take over the governance of Arctic affairs. 

So, in your view, the WWF is more direct in its approach than the UN?

It also depends – different NGOs have different ways of working. WWF focuses a lot on science. It focuses on the approach of nature and nature conservation, less on direct action. That’s why we are, I would argue, more easily invited to the table to share expertise and help formulate policies than you would have with, let’s say, some more radical parts of the NGO movement.

Does the Czech Republic play a role in any of the Arctic work done by organisations such as the UN and WWF?

The Czech Republic is obviously part of the UN. With WWF, there is no relationship between the country and the NGO. There are several Czechs I have met who are working in WWF, but there is no relation whatsoever. WWF has national offices in a number of countries, but not in the Czech Republic. There’s one common office for WWF Central and Eastern Europe. For the UN, it’s different – the UN is basically driven by decisions of governments. The programme of work, the budget and legal agreements are all adopted by the governments. In that sense, the Czech Republic is one of the constituents. The Czech Republic hasn’t been very prominent on Arctic matters. I know that with Antarctica, it’s a special case, because of Czech Republic being a Party to the Antarctic Treaty and hosting one of the Party meetings recently. Then, of course, you have the Arctic Council, which is yet another body where the Czech Republic would like to be an Observer but has not been admitted so far.

Do you think you’ll keep working on an international scale or do you see yourself taking back any of your expertise to the Czech Republic again?

I don’t have a firm plan. I’m very much enjoying the work that I have now with WWF and being able to expand and create engagement in Arctic matters, but also within the whole organisation, because it has a very broad mandate, not just on nature issues, but also increasingly on climate change and the whole environmental agenda. I don’t exclude that in a few years I might want to come back to my country, depending on what the opportunities are. I still have family ties in the Czech Republic. We still think, even after 10 years living outside of the country, that we might want to come back at some point. If it could be connected with Arctic matters, all the better, but definitely the environment, I would say. I’ve spent all my career working on environmental issues, and I don’t think I’m going to change that now. 

Finally, what do you see as the greatest challenges to the Arctic?

I would say challenge number one is climate change. It’s beyond doubt that the pace of climate change, the extreme events, the disruptions to the life of communities, the ecosystem change, the spread of diseases that can come with, for instance, thawing permafrost – these are all big changes linked to climate change. Related to it are, of course, the economic opportunities that are opening up in the Arctic. Some of them are more sustainable, others are not, as they are contributing to climate change and global warming. Therefore, really making sure that it is sustainable and doesn’t contribute to the problems of the Arctic – that’s a big challenge. Something that is also worrying is the competition of the countries in the Arctic for resources and power, including military tensions, especially these days. Another challenge is shipping and the use of oil fuels in Arctic shipping – if there is a major accident, it’s going to have very drastic consequences for the marine environment. As the shipping is intensifying, and it will be intensifying, there is more fear that, at some point, this can be a major disaster. 

Thank you for sharing your insights with us. 

It’s a great pleasure. Maybe one thing I would add is that I think it would make sense for the countries of Eastern Europe to understand the connections with the Arctic better and to be engaged in a meaningful way with what is happening in the Arctic, because, as you’ve heard so many times, what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic – that’s why it should be important for everyone.

NB: This interview took place on Wednesday, 9 February 2022, before the start of the Ukraine conflict and consequent halt of many cooperation platforms in the Arctic, including the Arctic Council.

Jan Dusík is a former Czech politician and Minister of Environment, activist and senior official in the United Nations Environment Programme in Geneva. Since March 2020, he has been with the Arctic Programme at WWF – he was coordinating WWF’s work across the Arctic on sustainability and governance issues and is currently the interim Director of the Programme. Previously, he also served as UNEP’s principal adviser for the Arctic and representative to the Arctic Council in 2018 and 2019. He has worked for the government of the Czech Republic, the European Union and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Alisa Musanovic is a Global Leadership Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. She is a graduate of a History BA at the University of Oxford and a recent graduate of an International Double Master’s Degree jointly studied at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at UCL and University of Helsinki. 
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