Inuit Group Confronts Global Warming Threat

Hundreds of Inuit are meeting in Alaska this week to discuss global warming and other matters critical to their survival. Shiela Watt Cloutier, the chairwoman of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, talks with Alex Chadwick about how global warming has impacted life in the north.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Global warming is a serious subject for many of us, but for hundreds of people meeting in Barrow, Alaska this week, it actually may be life and death. This is a gathering that happens every four years of Arctic peoples, the Inuit, who live in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Scandinavia and Russia. Like other ancient indigenous cultures, the survival of the Inuit as Inuit is threatened by all the powerful lures of modernity, good and bad, but more so by the softening ice. Their world is changing.

The conference chair is Sheila Watt Cloutier, an Inuit from very northern Quebec.

Ms. Cloutier, welcome to DAY TO DAY. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. SHEILA CLOUTIER (Chairwoman, The Inuit Circumpolar Conference): Thank you for having me.

CHADWICK: How widely shared are the reports of changing ice conditions among the Inuit in the Polar Circle?

Ms. CLOUTIER: Very widely shared. In fact, all of the countries are struggling. Some areas are hit much harder than others. For example, right here in Alaska, all of us, for sure, have these kinds of very stark and alarming stories to tell.

CHADWICK: And how do you see that in your daily lives, in hunting, in fishing, in your living conditions?

Ms. CLOUTIER: Yes, in every way, because we're still very much a hunting culture. So our hunters, our elders, our women, are noticing all of the changes, of course. And because our hunting culture is based on the cold, on the ice and snow, we are witnessing the most minute of changes to the melting of this planet. And the observations are that the ice is forming much later in the fall and leaving much earlier in the spring or early summer.

Also, the ice conditions are very different as well. Nowhere else in the world does ice represent mobility and transportation. And so it really makes a huge difference in our very daily lives, as the permafrost melts, as the snow, whether it falls or not, and if the ice forms or not.

CHADWICK: Ms. Cloutier, is it possible for the Inuit to move farther northward? Would it get colder if you did that? Are there alternatives?

Ms. CLOUTIER: No, I don't think so. You know, we're a coastal people because we're marine mammal hunters. So it's not as easy as one thinks to be able to relocate anywhere, whether it's further north or inland.

CHADWICK: You're meeting now at a time when I think the idea of global warming really is accepted, largely by the culture in this country and around the world. What kinds of things do you say you could do?

Ms. CLOUTIER: Well, we're already doing a great deal, I believe, in getting the world to understand what is happening up here. We have been engaged and involved in international politics now for almost 30 years. I personally have launched a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, targeting the United States for violating the human rights of Inuit of the Arctic, by their inaction to deal with this issue of lowering greenhouse gas emission.

So we are not powerless. We are not acting as powerless victims. We are acting as very strong advocates for our culture. But also, I believe, for the world, because the Arctic is indeed the early warning for the rest of world. And everybody connects and everything connects.

CHADWICK: You know, some people might say that life under different circumstances for the Inuit might be easier. That is, if you gave up a hunting culture. Because hunting cultures are difficult. So what does the survival of a hunting matter in life today? It hardly exists anywhere anymore.

Ms. CLOUTIER: There's a rich process in action here in a hunting culture. We don't want things easy. The hunting culture is extremely misunderstood. It is not just the act of killing an animal. The entire process of a hunting culture is a powerful teaching tool, which teaches not only the skills to survive the land, but it teaches the character skills, the generic skills of learning how to be patient, to be courageous, to have sound judgment, how not to be impulsive. All of these things lead to wisdom.

So this a powerful way in which the modern world have lost touch, the holistic way in which to prepare its youth for life, for opportunities and challenges. So we don't only survive in these kind of difficult conditions up here, we thrive on it.

CHADWICK: You'll have another conference in four years. I wonder if you know what kinds of conditions you might face then.

Ms. CLOUTIER: Well, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, and even new studies indicate things are happening faster than predicted in recent assessments. So I would think in four years, if major countries haven't really started to act on addressing this issue, they will be pushed to do so. Because by four years, I would think things will be unfolding even worse than they are today.

CHADWICK: Sheila Watt Cloutier is chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, meeting in Barrow, Alaska, just concluding.

Ms. Chairman, thank you.

Ms. CLOUTIER: Thank you very much.

CHADWICK: And NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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