Inuit Warn World of Human Cost of Climate Change


Richard Moore

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    One Woman, Fighting to Save Her People From Extinction
    By Andrew Gumbel
    The Independent UK
    Saturday 24 February 2007

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If Nobel Peace Prizes could refreeze the polar ice caps, then Sheila 
Watt-Cloutier would be a very happy woman indeed because her people are, 
"defending the right to be cold".

As it is, the Canadian activist, who lives in a remote community up above the 
Arctic circle, is thrilled to have her name put forward as one of the 181 
nominees for this year's accolade from the Nobel committee, because it can only 
advance the cause for which she has been fighting for the past 12 years - 
protecting the Inuit peoples whose lives are directly and most immediately 
threatened by the change in the world's climate and raising awareness about 
global warming. As she said recently: "It's been a long haul and a daunting task
to get the message out. When you're 155,000 people at the top of the world, 
there aren't very many people who even know who you are or what you're facing."

It is far too soon to say who will emerge as this year's Nobel Prize winner - 
the nominations were announced yesterday, and the peace prize is not awarded 
until October - but already the environment has emerged as this year's big theme
and Ms Watt-Cloutier, as the tribune of a remote people living with the stark 
realities of global warming on a daily basis, is perhaps the closest thing the 
planet has to a beacon of hope for a better future.

Two Norwegian members of parliament, Boerge Brende and Heidi Soerensen, 
announced very publicly that they were championing two candidacies this year: Al
Gore, who put climate change on the global agenda thanks to the runaway success 
of his global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and Ms Watt-Cloutier, 
who has worked "from the ground up" to save the planet.

Mr Gore is, naturally, the superstar in the Nobel Peace Prize field. Not only is
he a former vice-president and a man who, in his own words, "used to be the next
president of the United States". He is even up for an Oscar this weekend, and 
seems quite likely to win it.

If the Nobel committee decides, though, that he is too polarising a figure, or 
simply too political - there is still talk, after all, that he could run for the
White House again next year - then Ms Watt-Cloutier would appear to be the next 
best thing to a frontrunner in the field. Her story is exactly the kind of 
narrative the Nobel judges seem to like - an ordinary woman from a very unusual 
part of the world who has used her determination and force of character to put 
herself and her cause on the political map.

Ms Watt-Cloutier may not be a household name around the world - yet - but she 
has been singularly effective in getting herself in front of Canadian government
commissions and United Nations panels and pleading her cause in documentaries 
and media interviews. What she does, by her own definition, is "put a human 
face" on the devastations being wrought by global warming and explain its 
effects on real people, their lives and livelihoods.

Listen to her, and you will hear about even experienced hunters falling through 
the thinning ice and drowning, about food becoming scarce, about roads and 
runways crumbling because of changes to the permafrost, about houses collapsing,
about contaminants showing up in the breast milk of Inuit women, about new 
non-native plant and animal species - robins and barn owls, for example - so 
strange that the Inuit language does not have words for them.

A study championed by the organisation she represented for many years - the 
Inuit Circumpolar Conference, or ICC - showed back in 2004 that average annual 
temperatures are increasing more than twice as fast in the Arctic as in the rest
of the world. "We on a daily basis observe the minute changes that are occurring
in the environment," she said. "We are the guardians of the environment, in 
fact, because we're on the land every day ... we're the early warning system for
the rest of the world."

Ms Watt-Cloutier did not need to go out into the world to be politicised on this
issue; the issue came right to her doorstep. From her home in the far northern 
town of Iqaluit, which sits on Baffin Island in Canada's recently formed Nunavut
province, she can see the ice caps melting and the permafrost thawing. "We're 
already living this reality," she said. "It's not a theory in the future, it's 
right now in the present."

She talks a lot about the curtailed icy season: how the polar ice cap ice is 
forming later and later each year and breaking up earlier in the spring. "The 
sea-ice season is a lot shorter than it used to be. And as a result we have less
time to hunt on the ice. Our wildlife, the polar bear, has a lot less time so 
they're become a lot thinner.

"What you see on the surface is no longer what it is underneath. The Arctic sink
is warming from under, and the ice is changing from under as well. So the rules 
have all changed and so has the wisdom we pass on to our young people. Many of 
our elders are being stumped by it, because it is so unpredictable."

Ms Watt-Cloutier was born in 1953 in the town of Kuujjuaq, in what was then 
northern Quebec. For the first 10 years of her life, the only transport she knew
was the dog sled. Her mother was a renowned spiritual healer and interpreter, so
she drank deeply from her own Inuit culture. She went away for many years in 
pursuit of a first-class education, attending schools in Nova Scotia and 
Manitoba before graduating from McGill University in Montreal in education and 
human development. She spent the first part of her career working in public 
health and education, and as a cultural go-between and interpreter shuttling 
between English, French and the native Inuktitut language. Her daughter - she 
has two children - is an acclaimed practitioner of Inuit arts including throat 
singing and drum dancing.

By the early 1990s, Ms Watt-Cloutier was already known as a formidable community
leader in Nunavik. It wasn't until 1995, when she was elected president of the 
Canadian branch of the ICC, that she threw her energies into the fight against 
global warming. Once she started, though, she was well-nigh unstoppable. She 
helped negotiate the Stockholm Convention banning the manufacture and use of a 
group of chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants - toxic nasties used 
in both agriculture and industry that were causing contamination in humans.

Ms Watt-Cloutier has had to face her critics, too. The most common attack 
against her is one of hypocrisy - because the Inuit themselves use fossil fuels 
and non-biodegradable materials and are thus contributing to their own demise.

Her answer to the charge is straightforward. "Yes, we own airlines, we have 
skidoos, we have trucks," she acknowledges, "but the reality is our contribution
to this problem is very minute. It's off the radar in terms of what we are 
creating ourselves, whether it's the toxins or the greenhouse gases. These 
things are coming from afar." Afar means, first and foremost, the United States,
which produces 26 per cent of the world's greenhouse gases on its own. So it is 
only appropriate she is travelling to Washington next week - entering the very 
belly of the beast. The Nobel prize nomination may not achieve overnight 
results, but it will certainly guarantee the kind of attention she needs if her 
people - and perhaps the planet - are to survive and thrive.

    Among the other nominations:
    Al Gore

Since losing the presidential election to George Bush in 2000, Al Gore has 
become an ardent climate change campaigner. An Inconvenient Truth, his rebuke to
climate-change deniers, has earned him a Peace Prize nomination, thanks to 
Norwegian politicians Boerge Brende and Heidi Soerensen.

    Oprah Winfrey

The US chat show host's fans have been petitioning to have her nominated for her
philanthropic work. She is believed to be among the Nobel nominees, having 
opened the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy in South Africa for bright girls who
are from underprivileged backgrounds.

    Irena Sendler

Now 96, the Polish Catholic smuggled 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw 
ghetto between 1942 and 1943 and set up adoptions by Polish families. She buried
lists of the children's names so they could be reunited. Badly beaten by the 
Gestapo, she escaped and survived the war in hiding.

    Evo Morales

A nomination that will no doubt raise eyebrows in the White House is that of the
anti-US Bolivian leader. Bolivia's first indigenous head of state since the 
Spanish conquest, his promises of a better deal for ordinary Bolivians and his 
willingness to confront the US has won him admirers.

    Martti Ahtisaari

The former Finnish prime minister has been regularly nominated for the peace 
prize. His work in Namibia, the former Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland and most 
recently in Indonesia has made him one of the world's most successful peace 
negotiators. He was one of the favourites to win in 2005.

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