On a recent edition of DW’s Living Planet programme, Lakeidra Chavis reported on the effect of melting permafrost on indigenous communities in Alaska.
Chatting to a colleague in between times about the story, she told me how moved she was to hear how skulls had been washed up in a river as the permafrost at a burial site thawed.
Climate change impacts the present, future – and past
I had a kind of déjà vu feeling. Back in 2008, in those early days of the Ice Blog, I travelled out to Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the USA, with archaeologist Anne Jensen. We visited the site where a village had had to be re-located because of coastal erosion, with melting permafrost and dwinding sea ice. She told me how she was called up by distraught locals in the middle of the night and asked to help recover the remains of their ancestors before they were washed into the ocean. My colleague here in Bonn was surprised to hear that I had conducted that interview back in 2008. How could this have been known at that time already, yet so little publicized?
Victims or culprits?
While a lot of attention is focused (and rightly so) on the impacts on developing countries, Asia, Africa, rising sea levels, this is an issue a lot of people know very little about. In anarticle for Cryopolitics Mia Bennet puts her finger on an interesting aspect of all this. The Arctic indigenous peoples are living in industrialized, developed states. That gives them an interesting status, somewhere between being victims and perpetrators of climate warming.
“A discourse of victimization pervades much Western reporting on the Arctic”, she writes. A lot of people in the region tend to blame countries outside the region for climate change. She quotes a study in Nature Climate Change in which researchers found that emissions from Asian countries are the largest single contributor to Arctic warming. But she notes that gas flaring emissions in Russia and forest fires and gas flaring emissions in the Nordic countries are the second two biggest contributors. And these industries are often supported by locals, not least because of the jobs and prosperity they bring.
This brings me back to some encounters I had during that trip to Alaska in 2008 – and others since, with Inuit people employed in the oil sector. They were reluctant to accept that the industries that provided their livelihoods could ultimately be literally eroding the basis of their cultures. Russia, the USA, Canada, Norway – are all countries involved in oil and gas exploitation. Some northern regions are highly dependent on the industries which are warming the climate.
“And for their part, Arctic countries must realize that reducing emissions begins at home on the region’s heavily polluting oil platforms and gas flaring stacks – not in Paris”, says Mia Bennet.
All up to Paris?
The sad truth is that even the two-degree target – or the 1.5 currently being debated – will not have much of an impact on Arctic warming.
Mia Bennet puts it bluntly. “Regardless of whether a positive or negative outcome is reached in Paris at COP 21, it will not dramatically affect the Arctic.”
A delegation of indigenous leaders from the Arctic countries is in Paris at the talks. Both the Inuit Circumpolar Council and the Saami Council have sent delegates, with the aim of highlighting the consequences of a warming climate for the polar regions.
Council representatives are from three distinct Inuit regions: Canada, the USA and Greenland. The Chukotka region of Russia also has a substantial Inuit population, who are not directly represented in Paris, but belong to the Council. The Saami Council has representatives from Finland, Russia, Norway and Sweden. Both sets of delegates are attending as observers, without voting rights.
In a position paper, Inuit Circumpolar Council Chair Okalik Eegeesiak of Canada stresses the Inuit’s deep concern about the impacts of climate change on their cultural, social and economic health.
She describes the Arctic’s sensitive ecosystem as a “canary in the coal mine for global change”. Following that metaphor, the canary must be close to suffocating.
The Inuit representatives in Paris are appealing for stronger measures to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees C. They stress that the land and sea sustain their culture and wildlife, “on which we depend for food security, daily nutrition and overall cultural integrity”.
But ultimately, in a world where altruism seldom plays a part, it may be their other argument – the role of the Arctic in influencing the global climate system – that convinces negotiators of the need to work against global warming. With increasing knowledge and awareness of the extent to which the Arctic influences global processes and thus weather and climate all over the globe, the willingness to take measures to prevent further deterioration of the cryosphere is likely to increase. Whether it will be in time is another question. Any negotiator in Paris who has taken a brief moment off to read this – remember, we are not talking about a remote region with a small population. We are all in this together.
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: COP21 – View from Canada’s Northwest Territories, Eye on the Arctic
Finland: Mixed reactions in Finland to Paris climate accord, Yle News
Greenland: Will COP21 turn down heat on Arctic?, Eye on the Arctic
Sweden: Positive reaction to climate deal in Sweden, Radio Sweden
United States: For Alaskans in Paris, climate talks hit home, Alaska Dispatch News