Activist: climate change damages Inuit society
By Eliza Relman
Published on Wednesday, February 17, 2010
The impact of climate change on Inuit communities in the Arctic encompasses everything from the physical environment and ecological composition of the region to the human rights of the people, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sheila Watt-Cloutier said in a lecture in Filene Auditorium on Tuesday. Watt-Cloutier, a Canadian Inuit activist, discussed her theory of the interconnected nature of environmental, economic, political and human rights concerns on the international stage.
The increasingly detrimental effects of climate change — including global warming — are not only a scientific and political issue, but also an issue of human rights, Watt-Cloutier said.
“We must reframe the debate [about global warming] to focus on the connections between human rights and climate change,” Watt-Cloutier said. “The indigenous [Inuit] people are the ones who are most marginalized and hit the hardest by climate change.”
Working as a political representative for the Inuit people between 1995 and 2006, Watt-Cloutier organized conventions, drafted treaties and petitioned to protect the natural environment of the Inuit people. From 2002 to 2006, she worked as the International Chair for the Inuit Circumpolar Council and focused largely on issues of persistent organic pollutants and global warming in Inuit land.
Since 1995, Watt-Cloutier has been involved in launching regional and international campaigns to instigate legal action against the effects of climate change, according to Kenneth Yalowitz, the director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding, who introduced the speaker.
Of all of the climate changes affecting the planet, global warming most directly affects the Inuit people of Arctic.
“The permafrost is melting very quickly and homes are buckling inwards,” Watt-Cloutier said in an interview with The Dartmouth. “We also have new species of fish and birds and unpredictable and extreme storms.”
The introduction of new mosquitoes to the Arctic also threatens to spread malaria and the West Nile virus, she said, adding that the damaging effect of melting and unpredictable ice is threatening to all facets of Inuit life — including transportation, hunting and fishing.
Limiting the effects of global warming on the Arctic is essential to the wellbeing of the planet, Watt-Cloutier said.
“The Arctic is the world’s barometer on climate change,” Watt-Cloutier said.
Watt-Cloutier emphasized the unique culture of the 160,000 Inuit people residing in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia as an important reason to protect the land where the indigenous people have been residing for thousands of years.
“Culture is not just based on song and dance,” Watt-Cloutier said. “The indigenous culture is based on values and sustainability.”
The dramatic changes the Inuit people are facing are not only due to climate change, but the larger issue of globalization and industrialization, Watt-Cloutier said in the lecture.
“We have a sense of loss of control over our lives because we’ve gone from a hunter-gatherer civilization to the modern world in a very short period of time,” Watt-Cloutier said. “It really is ice age to space age.”
When members of the Inuit community objected to toxic waste from foreign countries in their waters and other environmental concerns, international governments told the Inuit people that “it is too expensive for us to stop hurting your way of life,” Watt-Cloutier said.
Today many of these same governments and new international leaders are beginning to see that “the world cannot afford to not save the Arctic” Watt-Cloutier said.
Watt-Cloutier added that until she was 10 years old, the only form of transportation she used was a dog sled, yet today she finds herself jetting around the world by airplane.
The courage and sound judgment necessary to survive as an Inuit in the Arctic are invaluable life skills that are “extremely transferable to the modern world,” Watt-Cloutier.
“The land teaches you to be reflective,” Watt-Cloutier said. “It teaches you self-worth, identity and wisdom.”