Nobody understands what is happening in the Arctic better than its Indigenous people. Effective climate change adaptation means giving them more power over the resources on which they depend
To understand our perspective on climate change, you first need to know a little about who we are. Inuit are an Indigenous people whose territories stretch from the north-eastern tip of Russia across Alaska, northern Canada and Greenland. Almost all of our communities are coastal. Our culture and livelihoods are grounded on the sea ice and the open waters of the brief Arctic summer. For many of our people, the solidity of the sea ice is a critical element of our infrastructure and our well-being. In 2008, the organisation I represent published a report called The Sea Ice is our Highway. We Inuit are engaged in the issue of climate change because our highway is melting away beneath our feet.
We have seen the reality of climate change with our own eyes and the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) has collected many stories from our people. Some of the impacts we see are direct results of warming. The walruses have moved away from places they were reliably found before. Sometimes they congregate in great numbers onshore instead of on the ice, resulting in walrus deaths when they are crushed by others in stampedes. Hunters now have a more difficult time finding and reaching their food. Ice has become dangerously unpredictable in spring and fall. Even the fish are changing, as unfamiliar species increasingly move north. People worry about what this means for their livelihoods, but also about what it means for the entirety of ice-dependent life. As hunter Albert Nikolayevich Ankalin succinctly put it in one of our reports, “If the ice is gone, the animals are gone and then we are lost as hunters.”
This is not just the concern of a few individuals. Climate change is a preoccupation of our entire people. It is so deeply worrying because it strikes at the core of our security; the ability to feed ourselves. For our report Food Security and Self-Governance: Inuit role in Managing Marine Arctic Resources, we consulted broadly with our people in Alaska, Canada, and Russia. We found that “in every meeting, focus group, and workshop, participants raised concerns about the rapid, major changes taking place due to climate change… changes that are directly threatening Inuit ways of life, harvesting and food security. Examples of changes include: water temperature fluctuations affecting salmon; changes in the birthing of walrus in coastal seas due to lack of sea ice; the influx of new species both on land and waters; an increase in vessel traffic impacting marine habitat.”
The changes we have already seen are nothing compared to projections of changes to come. Parts of the sixth and latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have already been released – and they aren’t comforting reading for Inuit. Firstly, the report offers western scientific support for what we have already seen. Compared to a reference point of 1979-1988, sea ice between 2010-2019 decreased by 40 per cent in September and about 10 per cent in March. Taking a longer view, over the last ten years, the sea ice area in late summer is smaller than at any time in the last thousand years. To put that in the context of human history, the sea ice area has not been smaller than now since at least the Norman conquest of Britain, or the Song dynasty was established in China, or the birth of the Persian poet Omar Khayyam.
The report also projects where we are likely going: “Human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2000 years. Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered. It is virtually certain that the Arctic will continue to warm more than global surface temperature, with high confidence above two times the rate of global warming.” Importantly, this projection is made under all scenarios. This means that even under the most optimistic outlook considered in the IPCC 6 report, the scenario in which we reach zero CO2 emissions by 2050, the world will still continue to get hotter. And temperatures in the Arctic will increase at double the global rate.
The report says that at least once in the next 30 years, the Arctic will be practically ice-free in September. This will have a direct impact on life in the ocean, but also on life on land. Our communities almost all face the coast, and that coast is increasingly being pounded by storms. Without the ice to dampen the impacts, shorelines are eroding rapidly. The village of Newtok in Alaska is losing more than 21 metres a year, so much that the entire population is being forced to move away from their homes to a new village site.
The climate impacts that Inuit are already seeing, and the projections for further impacts ahead, mean that our people are facing existential threats. We are threatened with the loss of our ability to feed our families, we are faced with the loss of our homes, and our entire culture is undermined by wrenching ecological change that is making our land a stranger to us. These threats have motivated Inuit to share our stories with the world in the hopes that doing so will help reduce the threat we face from increasing climate change.
There is little we can do ourselves to reduce that threat. There are fewer than 200,000 Inuit. Despite our small numbers, we are willing to do what we can to cut down on our greenhouse gas emissions. This will be difficult, because of where and how we live. Colonial governments took over our territories, moved us from our traditional, sustainable lifestyles on the land, and put us in communities where we have fossil fuels for power and heat. Many of our communities are not on roads, so accessing healthcare and a whole variety of essential services means taking a plane.
The restructuring of our communities by governments in the south has ironically left us with a dependency on fossil fuels that threatens to now destabilise those communities. We are now asking those governments responsible to give us the tools we need to decarbonise. Across much of Inuit Nunaat (lands where Inuit live) we have regained at least some measure of control over our lands and governance, but there are many urgent competing priorities for investment in housing, healthcare, social services and education that mean our own governments do not have the means to make the extra investment in decarbonisation.
This is made more difficult because international investment in green energy technologies typically prioritises investments in developing countries. Despite the yawning infrastructure deficit typical in our communities, our homelands are not situated in what are considered developing countries, and so not eligible for international financing. We want to play our part in a global solution, but we cannot do it alone.
While we want to do our part in decarbonising, Inuit must also deal with the reality of an Arctic that will continue to warm until at least 2050. Although we have regained some of our ability to govern and manage our own resources in much of our traditional territory, we need more power. Successfully adapting to the impacts of climate change is going to require us to assert our control even more in hunting and fishing regulation. Governments are notoriously slow to change such regulation and, frankly, sometimes rely on an incomplete understanding of what is happening on the ground.
Nobody understands what’s happening in our backyards better than us. Nobody will suffer more than us if the wrong management decisions are made. This is why we must continue to push, at a local level, a regional level, national level and international level for more control over local resources. At a local level, this means establishing Inuit-led conservation areas to exclude harmful impacts of industrial uses. At a regional or national level, it could mean the changing of laws and regulations to allow Inuit communities to self-regulate their use of natural resources. At an international level, it could mean giving Inuit standing at the International Maritime Organization so that we can have a say in how international shipping affects our communities through spills, pollution, or density of traffic contaminating and disturbing the wild food sources on which we rely.
Because of the difficulty of surviving and thriving in our Arctic homelands, Inuit have traditionally been very adaptable and self-sufficient. We continue to be adaptable, but the scope and scale of climate change is beyond anything we can manage alone. Inuit are prepared to do their part to get to a zero-carbon world, but will need global resources to get there, and will also need global help to adapt to what we cannot change.
Photograph by Martin Zwick/Universal Images Group
Dalee Sambo Dorough is Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council. Dr Dorough has a long history of direct involvement in the discussion, debate, and negotiation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Department of Political Science at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
With thanks to our coalition members: a network of organisations similarly committed to achieving Net Zero
Visit the homepage to find out more about the coalition and join us.