The Big Melt

Two books look at the impact of global warming on Canada’s Inuit

Everyone by now has some degree of familiarity with the concept of global warming. Many scientists are of the view that it is driven by humankind’s reliance on fossil fuels, and that the consequences may prove dire if serious efforts are not soon undertaken to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. There is a distinct minority that questions the soundness of the science behind the doomsday predictions. Perhaps predicting changes in the atmosphere involves so many variables that it is too simplistic to ascribe it only to human-induced phenomena.

I do not have the scientific background needed to engage with that debate directly, and therefore will not. I have nonetheless had the pleasure of reading two fascinating books that present a powerful and serious challenge to the global warming skeptics: The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet, by Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuk leader and activist who has been instrumental in garnering attention to global warming on both the political and media stages, and Our Ice Is Vanishing / Sikuvut Nunguliqtuq: A History of Inuit, Newcomers and Climate Change, by Shelley Wright, a professor of aboriginal studies at Langara College. Each gives different relative emphases to various themes, and draws on different sources, but their messages are fundamentally the same.

Both address to some degree the scientific debate surrounding global warming, but this is not the basis for their message. Forget scientists analyzing weather data in an urban laboratory. What Watt-Cloutier and Wright offer is the lived experience of one of the groups most directly affected by global warming, Inuit of the Canadian north. We get a front-seat view of global warming, and what we are shown is unsettling to say the least.

Inuit have had a pretty sophisticated knowledge of how to live in the Arctic. That knowledge includes how to navigate the ice to avoid falling through and succumbing to hypothermia, how to predict the weather by shifts in the wind and wildlife movements, and how to take shelter during deadly storms that can happen at any moment.

As noted by both Watt-Cloutier and Wright, all of this has been thrown off in recent years. The ice is softer, so Inuit hunters can no longer get a handle on what ice is safe to cross and what ice presents a danger of falling through. The weather is less predictable, so a hunting trip presents a much greater risk of getting caught in a storm. And the ice and snow are less solid and durable, which complicates the building of temporary snow houses on hunting trips. Inuit are genuinely convinced that global warming is real, say Watt-Cloutier and Wright. This has made past lifestyles far more dangerous in ways they never were before.

If there had been anything like this in the past, it would have made a lasting presence in Inuit oral histories. Contemporary academic research on aboriginal oral histories shows that some have matched past events perfectly. One example is their alignment with scientific accounts of earthquakes in British Columbia. If natural global warming in the past was of such a degree that it had such profound effects on the Inuit lifestyle, it would be in the oral histories. And yet Inuit, up until the 20th century, had lived the same lifestyles for generations since their arrival in the Canadian north, and while there have been climate adjustments during that time, there is no mention of any such phenomena that had such profound repercussions for their basic survival. If anything is a credible challenge to the skeptics, it is accounts such as these.

Global warming goes hand in hand with other environmental adversities as well. Industrial society produces chemicals that do not easily degrade, tend to evaporate in warmer climates, and then also travel to and accumulate in the Arctic. The toxins accumulate the most higher up in the food chain, meaning the threat is greatest for polar bears and Inuit themselves. That in turn leads to numerous and serious health problems. It is thus a cruel paradox that the people who do the least to contribute to global pollution are also the ones suffering the most from it.

It does not end there. When Canada began to colonize the Arctic in earnest, following World War Two, the colonizers brought all kinds of social devastations with them. These included forced relocations, the imposition of a different legal order that was inconsistent with how Inuit resolved disputes, the imposition of different economic relations that disrupted the traditional economy, the imposition of a different educational system that displaced traditional Inuit knowledge, as well as alcoholism, health problems, suicides, domestic violence and welfare dependency. It was as though anything that could possibly go wrong for Inuit has gone wrong since the mid 20th century, and the social fallout has been catastrophic.

Not surprisingly both authors comment on this fallout. They also dedicate a lot of space to cataloguing the efforts, both their own personal efforts and those of other Inuit, to raise awareness of what is happening and to persuade non-Inuit leaders of the pressing need to take action. It should come as no surprise that their tireless efforts have frequently met with frustration, obstacles, apathy and even outright opposition. Underlying the inability to persuade their audiences is a certain cognitive distance. The people they are trying to persuade, the ones who have the capacity to make a difference and make important decisions, are frequently the ones who simply cannot appreciate first-hand what is going on. They live at a comfortable distance from the Arctic, and global warming is an abstract concept to them. Besides, addressing global warming would inconvenience their own interests. Therefore the people who suffer through global warming as a lived experience, who have the front seats, find themselves unable to reach the people who are not even in the stadium, let alone the bleachers.

Both authors, Wright in particular, push the point further and claim that this cognitive distance informs an ongoing colonial attitude toward the North and Inuit. For example, Wright quotes Stephen Harper during a visit to Victoria in 2007:

Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty in the Arctic; either we use it or we lose it … And make no mistake this government intends to use it. Because Canada’s Arctic is central to our identity as a northern nation. It is part of our history, and it represents the tremendous potential of our future.

In Wright’s estimation, Harper’s use of a possessive reference to the Arctic, plus the suggestion that the Arctic remains pristine and unused, suggests a continuation of the age-old terra nullius view, albeit couched in terms that are not quite politically incorrect. Such thinking fails to consider that the Arctic is inhabited, and it is being used, just not in ways that non-Inuit Canadians are familiar with. To non-Inuit Canadians, the Arctic is simply a resource to be exploited for the benefit of those who do not reside there. To address the legitimate concerns of the Inuit residents, including the damage being wrought by global warming, would be inconvenient.

Mixed in with the frustrations, obstacles and struggles are victories as well. Examples include the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues recognizing the effects of global warming on Inuit and the need for action, as well as Watt-Cloutier’s own nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, which heightened attention on the concerns of the Arctic. Both books manage to strike a balance between the grave stoicism that the subject matter demands and a fragile optimism that holds out hope for the future.

In particular, Watt-Cloutier strikes out in a bold direction by advocating, as the title of her book suggests, for a legal and human right of Inuit to a cold homeland. Her conception expresses the hope that preserving the homeland that Inuit had formerly known takes on human rights dimensions meriting broad normative acceptance and legal enforceability. She readily admits that such a conception is bound to encounter the same cognitive barriers as have met the struggles to raise awareness. In another example that Watt-Cloutier is personally familiar with, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has frequently issued decisions recognizing a legally enforceable right to water, and yet refused to hear her own petition that not taking sufficient action on global warming means human rights violations against Inuit. Watt-Cloutier suggests that the cognitive distance becomes relevant again. Almost everything that human beings consume as beverages has water as its base material. Everyone can appreciate that not preserving freshwater sources has a connection to human dignity and survival. It is not so easy to make the connection between global warming and the suffering of Inuit for those who have not been obliged to go through it as a lived experience, who do not sit in the front seats.

Another concern that is on the minds of both authors is the acute tension that faces many indigenous peoples in North America. It is a tension between staying true to the values of the past and falling in with the push for contemporary economic development as an expedient way out of numerous social problems. Underneath the Arctic is an abundance of mineral and fossil fuel resources. Assuming that oil and mining companies are willing to share the profits, these could present a way for locals to claw their way out of the poverty that has overtaken the North. And yet the methods of extracting those resources are fundamentally at odds with the values that many Inuit had held dear in their ancestral past. Furthermore, the environmental repercussions of allowing such developments to go full speed ahead are troubling. The potential for toxic spillage to become lethal for the wildlife, the disruption of migration routes that are essential for wildlife survival, not to mention the possibility of making global warming even worse, are troubling for many Inuit.

I get a sense from Wright that she leans in favour of not embracing development, or at least being very cautious about it. And yet I can also sense that she struggles with the tension, the dilemma, having had to watch Inuit live in the grind of cruel poverty day in and day out. And so it seems that she hesitates to provide definitive answers. To be fair, there are no easy answers for this question, so it is perhaps unreasonable to demand such from her. She does, however, display a sensitive awareness of both sides of the coin. Watt-Cloutier, like Wright, also struggles with the dilemma and demonstrates a keen awareness of the different perspectives. She seems more willing to provide a definitive answer in comparison to Wright. For Watt-Cloutier, resource development may be helpful, but only on the firm condition that it be done in ways that will not endanger the land and that are not inconsistent with fundamental Inuit values. In that respect the authors demonstrate a seemingly more nuanced appreciation of the dilemma in comparison to aboriginal commentators such as Calvin Helin, who wholeheartedly embraces resource development, or Taiaiake Alfred, who rejects development as inherently exploitative toward indigenous peoples and inimical to fundamental indigenous values.

The authors are, of course, also quick to point out that global warming has potential consequences for the world at large, not just the North. The consequences include rising sea levels, more violent and destructive weather storms, and habitat disruption for humans and wildlife alike. In the view of both authors, there is thus an imperative to address global warming, with the Arctic delivering the dying canary warning for the rest of the world. The authors’ messages run deeper than to simply point out the physical implications of global warming. If human civilization does not care enough to help save the Arctic from global warming, does that mean it will not care enough to save the planet?

Both books are a fascinating blend of the intensely autobiographical, in which the authors’ emotional and personal investments are laid bare, and detached scholarship that duly acknowledges multiple perspectives and advances a considered argument. The two types of writing should on a certain level be mutually exclusive. And yet each author succeeds in blending them. Both books are treatments of a pressing issue I can recommend to any reader. Such is the quality of the writing that each presents a powerful challenge that will be difficult for anyone who has thus far been skeptical towards global warming to shrug off. Indeed, Wright admits to being a former skeptic who now fully believes that global warming is real, after having spent so much time among Inuit and having listened in earnest to what they have had to say. I myself am finding my own previous skepticism being seriously challenged, and I wager other readers will as well.