Climate Change In The Arctic: An Inuit Reality

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) characterizes the circumpolar Arctic as the world's climate change "barometer". The 160,000 Inuit who live in northern Canada, Greenland, Alaska and Chukotka in Russia have witnessed the changing of the natural environment as a result of global warming for almost 20 years.

It is important that you know what climate change does and means to us, for what we are experiencing now will happen to the further South in a few short years. I live in Inuvik, well above the Arctic circle, on the Mackenzie River delta in Canada's northwest territories. About 4,000 people live in Inuvik -- the northern headquarters of oil and gas development in the Beaufort Sea region. The circumpolar Arctic is not isolated anymore; globalization has reached it. The South is hungry for our oil, gas and minerals, with exploration proceeding quickly in many parts of the Arctic. The United States Geological Survey believes that 25 per cent of the world's remaining oil and gas is located here. Northern Canada is the world's 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 to 50 years, Inuit have adjusted to social, economic and cultural changes. But even as we adapt to globalization, we realize that climate moderation is likely to be the key driver of socio-economic and cultural changes in years ahead.

In 1999, the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development and the community of Sachs Harbour (with about 125 people), on Banks Island in the Beaufort Sea region, documented local and regional environmental changes. In a video shown at the 2000 Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), hunters and elders spoke with quiet authority about: 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, pin-tailed ducks and salmon) near the community; a decline in the lemming population (a basic food for Arctic fox and a staple species); and a general warming trend.

These changes are not unique to my region. They are also reported by Inuit in Greenland and Alaska, Saami in northern Norway, Aleut in the Aleutian Islands, Athabaskans and Gwich'in in North America, Nenets, Chukchi and many other indigenous peoples in northern Russia. Our world is increasingly changing. The traditional knowledge of how the world works, passed down from generation to generation, is less accurate than it was. Climate change is not a theoretical faraway problem for future generations to solve. It is already happening in the Arctic, which is struggling to adjust and adapt to its impacts. Communities are contending with vanishing historical sites, gravesite erosions, and community disruption and relocation. Inuit are as adaptable as others, but only to a certain degree.

Our observations helped to persuade the eight Arctic States to launch the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) in 2000, involving more than 300 scientists from 15 countries, and assisted by Arctic indigenous peoples. The Assessment, published in 2005, was the centrepiece of the 2005 COP in Montreal. It significantly influenced the three summaries for policymakers, issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007, on the physical science of climate change mitigation and impacts effects and vulnerabilities, which singled out the Arctic.

Ten years ago, hardly anyone talked about climate change in my part of the world; today, climate change stories worldwide feature polar bears, seals and Inuit. Scientists and politicians are beginning to read the Arctic barometer's message: stormy weather ahead. A key conclusion of the almost 1,000-page Assessment is the projected thawing and disappearance of multi-year sea ice in the summer by mid to end of the century. The Arctic Ocean will then share similarities with North America's Great Lakes -- freezing in winter (to some degree) and thawing in summer. Since ACIA was completed, science suggests that this may become the situation by 2040 or even earlier.

Let me focus on two of the many implications suggested by ACIA about a summer sea ice-free Arctic. First, marine mammals, including polar bears, walrus and seals, as well as species of marine birds that rely on sea ice as habitat, face potential "extinction". The Inuit culture and relationship are uniquely related to the Arctic ecosystem, and what happens to the species directly affects our fortitude. The UNFCCC aims to prevent "dangerous" climate change in order to "ensure that food production is not threatened". Well, the threat is already here in the Arctic. The Arctic Council is presently working on ice conditions scenarios in 2020 and 2050.

Second, far easier access, particularly by sea, will be available to the Arctic's minerals and hydrocarbons, many of which are located offshore. A significant increase in general cargo transits is projected through the northwest or northeast passages, or even the Arctic Ocean. In short, climate change will promote and accelerate industrial development in a unique, fragile and vulnerable region. It is not far-fetched to foresee shipping in the Arctic, linking Europe and Asia to the western and eastern seaboards of North America, cutting off thousands of kilometres of global sea routes, which will further impact 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 region's indigenous populations fare in a future moulded by global climate change? Firm answers are not possible, but adaptation on a huge scale will be needed despite the risks involved. The culture of Inuit and other Arctic indigenous peoples is based on their relationship with the land, environment and animals. Wholesale adaptation to an industrial future may be tantamount to assimilation that indigenous peoples worldwide seek to avoid.

The methods in which adaptation is carried out will likely reflect the relationship between the Arctic indigenous peoples and their national governments. 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 main cause of the impact of climate change we are experiencing throughout the circumpolar Arctic and foreseen areas.