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Home » Press Releases » 2007 » Climate Change: An Inuit Reality

Climate Change: An Inuit Reality

UN Chronicle
Duane Smith

The United Nations Environment Programme characterizes the circumpolar Arctic as the
worlds climate change barometer. The 160,000 Inuit who live in northern Canada,
Greenland, Alaska, and Chukotka in Russia have for almost 20 years witnessed the
natural environment changing as a result of global warming. I want to tell you what we
see and what climate change means to us. It is important that you know, for what we see
now will happen to you, further South, in a few short years.

I live in Inuvik, well above the Arctic Circle, on the Mackenzie river delta in Canadas
Northwest Territories. Like many Inuit, I seasonally hunt, fish and trap, but also work in
an office. About 4,000 people live in Inuvikthe northern headquarters of oil and gas
development in the Beaufort Sea region.

The circumpolar Arctic is not isolated any more. Globalization has reached the Arctic.
The South is hungry for our oil, gas and minerals. The US Geological Survey believes 25
percent of the worlds remaining oil and gas is located up here. Exploration for oil and
gas is proceeding quickly in many parts of the Arctic. Northern Canada is now the
worlds third largest producer of gem diamonds. Great reserves of base and precious
metals and coal have been found in the North. In the last 40 or 50 years Inuit have
adjusted to wholesale social, economic, and cultural change. But even as we adapt to
globalization, we are coming to realize that climate moderatation is likely to be the key
driver of socioeconomic and cultural change in years ahead.

In 1999 the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development and the
community of Sachs Harbour (about 125 people) on Banks Island in the Beaufort Sea
region made a video documenting local and regional environmental changes. Shown with
considerable effect at the 2000 conference of parties to the climate change convention in
The Hague, hunters and elders spoke with quiet authority to a global audience. They
spoke of commonplace and cumulative changes; melting permafrost resulting in beach
slumping and lake erosions; increased snowfalls; longer sea-ice free seasons; emerging or
invasive new species of birds, fish and insects (barn owls, mallard and pin-tailed ducks
and salmon) near the community; a decline in the lemming populationa basic food for
Arctic fox, a staple speciesand generally, a warming trend. That kerosene and fuel oil
no longer resemble milk and jelly in mid-winter was the compelling indicator of climate
change offered by long-time resident Andy Carpenter. Not to mention the freezing rains
which impacted the herbivores ability to forage throughout the winters.

These changes are not unique to my region. Similar changes are reported by Inuit in
Greenland and Alaska, Saami in northern Norway, Aleut in the Aleutian Islands,
Athabaskans and Gwichin in North America, and Nenets, Chukchi and many other
Indigenous peoples in northern Russia. Our world is increasingly changing day-by-day
and year-by-year. The traditional knowledge of how the world works, passed down from
generation to generation, is less accurate than it was. As one elder from Alaska noted:

the earth is faster now. Climate change is not, to us, a theoretical, far-away problem for
future generations to solve. In the Arctic, climate change is happening now and we are
struggling to adjust and adapt to its impacts.

In fact many communities are presently dealing with the dire need to relocate due to
rising tides and surging storms that erode away our very history and shorelines.
Communities throughout my arctic are contending with vanishing historical sites, family
gravesite erosions, community disruption and relocation. We Inuit, are as adaptable as
others, to some degree.

Our observations helped to persuade the eight Arctic states to launch an Arctic Climate
Impact Assessment in 2000. Involving more than 300 scientists from 15 countries aided
by Arctic Indigenous peoples, the assessment was accepted by ministers in 2004,
published in 2005, and was the centrepiece of the 2005 conference of parties to the
climate change convention in Montreal. The ACIA significantly influenced the three
Summaries for Policymakers issued in 2007 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change. The summaries on physical science, and impacts, effects and vulnerabilities
singled out the Arctic. 10 years ago hardly anyone talked about climate change in my part
of the world. Now, climate change stories worldwide feature polar bears, seals and Inuit.
Scientists and politicians are beginning to read the Arctic barometers messagestormy
weather ahead.

The ACIA is almost 1,000 pages long and makes sober reading. A key conclusion in the
ACIA is the projected thawing and disappearance by the mid to end of the century of
multi-year sea ice in summer. The Arctic Ocean will then be like North Americas Great
Lakesfreezing in winter (to some degree), thawing in summer. Since the ACIA was
completed, science suggests that this may be the situation by 2040 or even earlier.

Let me focus on two of the many implications suggested by the ACIA of a summer sea
ice-free Arctic. First, marine mammals including polar bears, walrus, and species of seals
including species of marine birds that rely upon sea ice as habitat, face potential
extinction. The Inuit culture and relationship is uniquely related to the arctic
ecosystem, and what happens to the species directly affects our fortitude. Article two of
the1992 climate change convention aims to prevent dangerous climate change in order
to ensure that food production is not threatened. Well, it already is, here in the Arctic.

The Arctic Council is presently working on 2020 and 2050 ice conditions scenarios.
Second, far easier access, particularly by sea, will be available to the Arctics minerals
and hydrocarbons, many of which are located offshore. A significant increase in general
cargo transits through the Northwest or Northeast passages or even the Arctic Ocean is
also projected. In short, climate change will promote and accelerate industrial
development in a unique, fragile and vulnerable region of the globe. It is not far-fetched
to foresee shipping in the Arctic linking Europe, Asia and the western and eastern
seaboards of North America, cutting thousands of kilometres off global sea routes, which
further impact on our sensitive region.

The circumpolar Arctic may well become a region of considerable geopolitical and
strategic importance. Some authors have predicted mass population movements as a
result of climate change. This may be plausible in tropical and temperate regions, but it
remains highly unlikely in the Arctic. Nevertheless how will the regions Indigenous
peoplespermanent inhabitants of the Arcticfare in a future moulded by global
climate change? Firm answers are not possible to this difficult and complicated question,
but adaptation on a huge scale will be needed, yet this also brings risks. The culture of
Inuit and other Arctic Indigenous peoples is based on a relationship with the land,
environment and animals.

Wholesale adaptation to an industrial future may be tantamount to assimilation
something that Indigenous peoples worldwide seek to avoid, which only cumulates the

How and how well adaptation is carried out will likely reflect the relationship between
Arctic Indigenous peoples and the national governments of the states in which they
reside. But whatever the future holds, Inuit and all Arctic Indigenous peoples will press
the global community to reduce emission of greenhouse gases that are the root cause of
the impacts we are experiencing throughout the circumpolar arctic and the foreseen areas.

A resident of Inuvik in Canadas Northwest Territories, Duane Smith is a former Co-
Chair of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Arctic Specialist group Sustainable Use
Initiative and is the current President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) is an Indigenous Peoples’ Organization (IPO), founded in 1977 to promote and celebrate the unity of 180,000 Inuit from Alaska (USA), Canada, Greenland, and Chukotka (Russia). ICC works to promote Inuit rights, safeguard the Arctic environment, and protect and promote the Inuit way of life. In regard to climate change, we believe that it is crucial for world leaders and governments to recognize, respect and fully implement the human rights of Inuit and all other Indigenous peoples across the globe.