A response to global warming


CLYDE RIVER, Nunavut - When Inuit elder Zacharias Aqqiaruq tried to
summarize local climate change for Harvard University researcher Shari Fox
Gearheard, he used a word neither she nor her interpreter had heard before.

"The weather has been called uggianaqtuq," he said. Fox Gearheard asked
around for a definition and finally learned that the word meant, in a human
context, "I was not myself; I was acting unexpectedly."

For Arctic dwellers, the weather has definitely not been itself. A major
study organized by the Arctic Council, a forum of northern nations and
indigenous people, concluded in late 2004 that the top of the world is
bearing the brunt of the phenomenon called "global warming." But the rest
of the world is only now beginning to listen to warnings from the
indigenous people who live there.

At a turn-of-the-millennium meeting of Native elders at Cornell University,
western Greenland Inuit lecturer and drummer Angaangaq Lyberth told Indian
Country Today that Inuit elders were debating whether it was worth trying
to alert an unhearing world to the changes they saw coming. Modern science
tended to discount tradition-based observations as "anecdotal," and
politically powerful interests were dismissing all talk of global warming
as anti-corporate propaganda.

The Native voice, however, is beginning to win through. It has had to break
into an often crudely overstated debate of hypothetical computer models. As
carried out in world forums, the debate has been an ideological struggle of
generalities fueled by resentment against the industrialized West or, more
specifically, against the United States. (In its turn, the U.S. government
has complained that the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gases gives a
free ride to the highly-polluting emerging economies of the Third World.)
In all the shouting, indigenous people are quietly reminding the rest of
the world that they are the ones living with the consequences, in the here
and now.

Indigenous people around the world, almost by definition, are the ones who
live closest to nature and feel its impacts the most sharply. Daily
survival depends on close observations of the climate and animal life. From
this a sense of gratitude and responsibility to the natural world is
derived. Native claims of a special relationship range from traditional
Hopi prophesies to modern innovations that reduce pollution at tribal
casino resorts.

This relationship is a matter of life and death in the Arctic, where Inuit
and Indian people have successfully adapted to the harshest and
least-forgiving climate on earth. They are now the first to have to respond
to global warming.

The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, released in November at a major
conference in Iceland, concluded: "The Arctic is now experiencing some of
the most rapid and severe climate change on Earth." The average temperature
north of 60 degrees latitude has risen "at almost twice the rate as the
rest of the world in the last few decades." The long-term impact, notably a
rise in sea level, could dramatically affect the rest of the world. But, as
the Arctic Council learned through paying attention to Native voices,
immediate changes are already affecting daily life in the North. The
changes were truly unpredictable. Fox Gearheard discovered in her travels
through central Nunavut, the new Inuit-governed province in northern
Canada, that some villages reported a definite cooling in the past decade.
Cree around Hudson Bay, James Bay and the Hudson Strait reported rapid
onset of cold weather and slower warming in the spring. But other regions
reported the better-publicized warming. The overall pattern was climate
instability and general failure of once reliable traditional means of
predicting weather.

Melting of coastal ice made travel hazardous. As once-solid surfaces
thinned, hunters have fallen through to their deaths. Ice floes have
drifted further from shore, taking away meat supplies such as seals. Elders
in Baker Lake told Fox Gearheard that drier and hotter summers had reduced
some berries and mosses, thinning the caribou herds. Thinning of the ozone
layer exposed Natives to higher ultraviolet radiation. The elders Iqallijuq
and Kappaniaq told her that the sun felt stronger. She reported that
complaints of sunburn seemed a new phenomenon of the past seven years.

On a broader scale, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) predicted
dramatic changes in local ecologies, with good and bad sides. Some species,
such as polar bears, would face "devastating consequences," but the tree
line would move north, providing more wood and employment opportunities.
Human populations would increase, but would have to deal with greater
plagues of flies and mosquitoes.

The receding coastal ice would destroy traditional hunting, but could in
the long run open maritime routes that would bring increased sea traffic
and economic growth. (The northern Russia routes would probably benefit
most, said the study, although the offshore oil industry might also boom.)
Whether this growth would be good or bad for Native people remains highly

The ACIA produced a 1,200-page scientific report with 300 contributors, the
most massive of its kind. It is remarkable for drawing not only on
scientists but on "elders and other insightful indigenous residents of the
Arctic region," as ACIA Chairman Robert Corell told the U.S. Senate
Commerce Committee Nov. 16, 2004. Perhaps it is a hopeful turn in the
global warming debate that the rest of the world is starting to "ask the
experts" and seek out the observations of the Natives who live in the most
affected areas.