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BEIJING, Nov 29 2010 (IPS) - As the Arctic has only recently moved toward centre stage, there is still much we must do to understand the true nature of the changes that are occurring there.

While I cannot claim any special expertise in the Arctic, I have had a long and deep interest in it dating from my time working for the Hudsons Bay Company, from 1945 to 49, at its Chesterfield Inlet trading post, located just south of the Arctic Circle in Northern Canada.

My close association with the Inuit people during those early days and what I learned from them provided the foundations for my interest in the environment. I could not help but marvel at the realization that these resilient and resourceful people, their culture and way of life, were able not only to survive but to thrive over millennia in one of the worlds harshest climates. I was also saddened to see their vulnerability to the processes of modernization, which even then, were undermining their traditional ways of life with their small numbers scattered over a vast territory. When Canada emerged as a nation, the Inuit became part of it. They lived at the margins of Canadian society with little influence on the larger body politic of the country, on which they became increasingly dependent.

We must now see the Inuit and other peoples of the north as being on the front lines of the changes that are radically re-shaping conditions there and our perceptions of its value to Canada, and indeed the world.

I am pleased to note that the recent statement on Canadas Arctic Foreign Policy acknowledged that our claim to Arctic sovereignty owes much to the presence there of Inuit and other indigenous people since time immemorial.

The statement acknowledges the impacts of climate change and the need to protect the Arctic environment and prepare for its adaptation to changes in climate already irreversible. This is a welcome change from the position our government has taken on these issues in other fora. Certainly, better late than never but, of course, the proof in the pudding is in the eating.

The biological resources of the Arctic, both terrestrial and marine, are especially vulnerable. Mining, oil, and pipeline development have environmental impacts that can be evaluated and regulated. But the impacts of climate change have their sources outside of the Arctic and beyond the control of Canada and other nations, and requiring an unprecedented degree of international cooperation.

Scientific evidence now makes it clear that the Arctic is particularly susceptible to these impacts and can become a source of them. Thawing of the permafrost could release vast amounts of methane that would contribute to global warming. Even small changes in temperature can give rise to migrations of both terrestrial and marine species with potential impacts on other species. There has been much attention to the plight of polar bears resulting from the reduction of the ice packs which provide their normal habitat.

A recent article in the Journal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences cautions that the magnitude of impending climate change worsens the prospects for species extinction placing at risk many more species than are protected. Current conservation policy based on the assumption that nature can be protected in sanctuaries walled off from human effects may now become inhospitable to the resources they are intended to protect. Estimates of climate driven extinction are now estimated to be as high as one third of all species including plants, vertebrates, fungi and microbes, all of which are compounded in the Arctic. While we can take satisfaction in the number of new national parks and protected areas, we are now cautioned to look beyond this to a much more comprehensive and radical approach to the conservation of Arctic species. It is clear that climate change forces us to make difficult trade-offs as between costs and benefits of maintaining biological resources in relation to the development of resources.

Canadas Arctic foreign policy statement also commendably makes clear the need for strengthening of existing mechanisms for the governance of the Arctic, particularly the Arctic Council. Although it affirms the increased potential for disagreement and conflict in respect of Arctic issues and particularly challenges to Canadas claims of sovereignty, it suggests that these can be managed peacefully with existing mechanisms.

My own belief is that we must prepare for an increased number and intensity of conflicts as the potential value of Arctic resources becomes subject to greater competition and other nations assert their right of passage through Arctic waters. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Maurice Strong was the Secretary General of the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, first Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, and Secretary General of the 1992 UN Conference on the Human Environment ( http://www.mauricestrong.net).

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