For centuries, the Inuit have lived in harmony with possibly the harshest climate on the planet. Thanks to climate change, they are losing their traditional way of life as rapidly as the polar ice caps are melting. While this drama may seen remote and unimportant to those who defend what they believe to be their God-given right to burn fossil fuels, what befalls the Inuit may soon befall all of us. In simple terms, they are the canaries in the coal mine of climate change.
This was the profoundly moving message that 2007 Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Arctic activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier gave to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Sustainable Communities Conference in Ottawa recently.
The Arctic is the planet's stabilizer. The white polar ice caps reflect much of the radiation they receive from the sun. As the ice caps melt, the open water absorbs rather than reflects the sunlight, accelerating the predicted rate of climate change and ultimately impacting the entire planet.
Until recently, scientists were predicting an ice-free summer for the Arctic as soon as 2040. Because of the significantly accelerated warming, NASA scientists are now predicting that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free as early as 2012. That's a problem that the Canadian government may not be ready to address. It's coming nonetheless.
While we still think of climate change in terms of environmental and health impacts, for Watt-Cloutier it's a human rights issue.
"Canada has lost its ability to lead by abandoning Kyoto - the only international agreement we have ever had on climate change, however flawed it may be," said Watt-Cloutier, "Principals and ethics matter in a world that often teeters on chaos. We have a responsibility to act. By not acting, we have failed that responsibility."
The Inuit are a very old people with a population of only 150,000 souls. They have survived and thrived over many thousands of years because of their remarkable ability to adapt and live in balance with the harsh northern climate. Over the centuries, they have developed an economy that cares for the planet and for their people, and in doing so have enabled both to thrive.
"We have integrated this idea of balance into all of our planning processes," said Watt-Cloutier. "We are asked, 'Wouldn't it be better for indigenous people to simply abandon their lifestyle and adopt a 21st-century lifestyle?' " But the idea of cultural and economic assimilation is not an acceptable one to the gentle Inuit people, she told a spellbound audience of the nation's municipal leaders.
"The solution for our communities is finding a balance," said Watt-Cloutier. "Our influence springs from our ethical authority. We must do the right thing."
Rather than abandoning the life of the hunter-gatherer for more conventional employment, Watt-Cloutier advocates training the Inuit young people to do both.
"Why not a career as a huntergatherer-engineer?" she asks. "If you are connected to the cycles of nature, then you are connected to your food source.
Watt-Cloutier's message is that we have to adapt to sustainable food production. For the Inuit people, taking the best of their traditions and blending it with the best of the new technologies is the key to survival. She believes that taking this approach will empower the people in marginalized communities where passive dependency has had disastrous results. According to her predictions, the destruction of the ancient ways of the Inuit people mirrors a much larger catastrophe.
Climate change is seen as a financial opportunity in the North, says Watt-Cloutier, but as the Northwest Passage is opened, Canada will want to defend its sovereignty.
"Instead of seeing the Northwest Passage as an opportunity, we must recognize that an ice-free passage is an environmental disaster," she said. For Canada, it will mean a buildup of our armed forces and potential conflict with other Arctic nations.
What we have is a small opportunity that is disappearing almost as rapidly as the Arctic ice. Rather than defending our sovereignty with military icebreakers and troops, her elegant solution is to defend our sovereignty by supporting the human rights of the indigenous peoples of the North. Instead of a regime where conflict and strife reign, protecting the fragile climate of the North presents us with an opportunity to preserve one of the last pristine places on Earth where no war has ever taken place.
For Watt-Cloutier, protection of the Arctic is a shining example of how the nations can come together at the very top of the world. In order to accomplish this, we must give up our simple- minded notion that uncontrolled economic development will lead to a better world. The opportunity is ours, the motivation is upon us now, and the rewards are not for us but for our children and grandchildren. What is required is the courage to be exceptional: to go beyond what is politically or economically acceptable. The measure of our success will not be in development or commercial products of any kind. Rather, it will be in the preservation of the most delicate, the most rare and most tenuous of existences: the canaries of the Great White North.
Suzanne Elston is an Ontario author and broadcaster whose work has been featured on CTV (Canada AM), TVOntario (More to Life) and Great Lakes Radio.
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