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CLIMATE CHANGE: Arctic Peoples Claim Their Right to Cold Temperatures

Stephen Leahy interviews MARY SIMON* - Tierramérica

QUEBEC CITY, Dec 24 2008 (IPS) - “Terrifying” is the word that best describes the situation of a hunter who is lost on shifting ice, or of the homeowner whose house splits in two when its foundation sinks, says Canadian indigenous leader Mary Simon when asked about the effects of global warming on the Inuit people.

Mary Simon and a map of the Inuit communities.  Credit: Courtesy of Inuit organisation Tapiriit Kanatami

Mary Simon and a map of the Inuit communities. Credit: Courtesy of Inuit organisation Tapiriit Kanatami

Climate change is rapidly changing the ecology of the Arctic and creating a crisis for the 160,000 indigenous people in the region, collectively known as Inuit, who are thinly spread along the edges of the Arctic Ocean in Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia and the U.S. state of Alaska.

The region is too cold for trees, and only grass and small bushes can survive the short three-month summer where temperatures average 6 to 8 degrees Celsius.

During the nine-month cold season the land and sea are snow-covered and frozen. In winter, because the sun does not rise over the horizon, darkness reigns 24 hours a day and the average temperature is -30 degrees C, reaching -60 C on the coldest of days.

Despite these challenging conditions, the Inuit have survived there for thousands of years, hunting seals, walrus, whales and caribou.

They once lived in houses made of whalebone and thick clumps of grass and earth, as well as houses made of snow. Today they live in wooden houses made of materials imported from thousands of kilometres away.

But their land of snow and ice that sustained them for so long is melting as average temperatures climb two to three times faster than anywhere else in the world.

“We live off the land hunting and fishing for our food, but that is getting harder and harder because everything is changing,” Simon told Tierramérica.

Leader of Canada’s Inuit and former Canadian ambassador to Denmark, Simon was born in the village of Kangiqsualujjuaq, in the extreme north of Quebec province. Tierramérica spoke with her in Quebec City.

TIERRAMÉRICA: How is climate change affecting the Inuit?

MARY SIMON: Rapid climate change in the Arctic has affected the permafrost (the permanently frozen surface layer of the soil) and our communities which are built on the permafrost. Climate change is accelerating the erosion of our coasts, causing floods and introducing insects that Inuit have never seen before.

The scientific predictions for what we can expect in the Arctic region in the not so distant future are alarming. No, “alarming” is not a strong enough word; “terrifying” is better suited for the hunter who is lost on shifting ice and the homeowner whose house is splitting in half as the foundation sinks.

TIERRAMÉRICA: What would you say to world leaders, who in December 2009 are to approve a climate agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol and establish emissions reductions for climate-changing greenhouse gases?

MS: They are not making the connection with what is happening in the Arctic. Climate change is a human issue first and foremost. We Inuit have to live with the effects of climate change every single day. We live off the land hunting and fishing for our food, but that is getting harder and harder because everything is changing.

We have to buy more food from the south (southern Canada), and it is very expensive, so people are forced to buy the cheapest food, which is usually junk food. There rarely is fresh produce or meat in our stores and this is affecting our health.

For the Inuit, a conversation on climate change takes a broad, holistic view that touches on the interconnections between our environment, our politics and our social, economic and cultural well-being.

TIERRAMÉRICA: What is the way forward on tackling the global issue of climate change?

MS: Shallow fixes won’t do it. We need to re-think, re-tool and re-engineer the way we do things so that we are less dependent on fossil fuels. We need a suite of inter-related polices, including an energy policy, an industrial policy, a transportation, and an urban policy, to make us radically less dependent on greenhouse gas fuels.

We need real action on required emissions cuts and we need leadership.

TIERRAMÉRICA: What should Canada be doing about climate change?

MS: Hard emissions reductions targets are essential, as are effective national policies, backed up by federal spending priorities. Proposed Canadian greenhouse gas policies should be understandable and accountable.

Complexity brings two dangers: First, it risks diverting efforts into finding clever ways to “beat the system,” and profit from policies through searching for ingenious loop-holes, rather than striving to make investments and develop technologies that reduce emissions. Second, it makes it very difficult to sustain public confidence, learn from our mistakes, and retain a clear sense of core objectives.

TIERRAMÉRICA: Do people in southern Canada, where 99 percent of the population lives, understand what is happening in the north?

MS: They only hear about our social problems, alcoholism and youth suicides. They don’t know that a lot of people are trying very hard to have a better life, but there are so many obstacles. For instance ,our culture isn’t taught as part of the education system. Children are still punished for speaking their own language.

And climate change wasn’t even an issue during the October federal elections. That’s just shocking.

TIERRAMÉRICA: What do you think about the Canadian government’s new interest and promised investments in the Arctic?

MS: The Harper government only talks about sovereignty (territorial claims) and resource extraction, not about the health of communities. There is a desperate lack of housing in the north resulting in overcrowding. That has knock-on effects where kids don’t do well in school because they have to sleep in shifts. And overcrowding has led to outbreaks of TB (tuberculosis).

Housing costs are three times higher and there are few jobs. While the government provides social housing, it is in short supply and the houses are poorly made and don’t last long. We need healthy communities in the north in order to assert our sovereignty. Canada needs to invest in our communities.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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