The Erosion of Ice and Identity in the Arctic

7 December 2019

We all know the reason for our annual COP convergence: avoiding catastrophic climate change. The IPCC told the world that we have the next 10 years to close the emissions gap, but the message from National Inuit Youth Council President, Crystal Martin-Lapenskie, is “Inuit living in the Arctic don’t have 10 years. We are experiencing catastrophic climate change right now.” Inuit knowledge was echoed in the findings of the IPCC Report on Oceans and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) released in September and shared yesterday on the floor at COP25. The report is an example of Indigenous knowledge and Western science saying the same thing: the cryosphere is changing, rapidly and profoundly. Warming oceans and air mean reduced ice coverage, rising sea levels, flooding in low lying areas, and the erosion of our shorelines resulting in relocations of infrastructure and people. For Inuit living in the Arctic, ice and glacial loss is not just a matter of physical changes in the environment, but a threat to Indigenous lives and livelihoods.

Inuit from throughout Chukotka, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland as well as others have been bringing this message of urgency to the COP for decades. Benjamin Qetun”aq Charles, Inuit Yup”ik, Inuit Nunaat (homelands), talks about how Indigenous knowledge systems are evolving due in part to exponentially changing ecosystems. He says, “Water bodies; rivers, lakes and ponds and the ocean ecosystems temperatures have increased. Our fishermen have been forced to harvest outside of legally regulated fishing times. Hunter-gatherers have to travel much longer distances to find food sources including walrus, seal, and whale, which are adapting to changing macro, micro and/or amalgamating ecosystems, for example, ice for seals and walrus haul-outs. This changes the dynamics for hunters and gatherers who are traveling longer distances at greater monetary expense.”

Air temperatures within the Arctic are increasing at a rate of at least two times the global average. This makes the 1.5°C target stipulated in the Paris Agreement redundant for those who are already being displaced both physically and culturally. The Pikialasorsuaq Commission initiated by the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) recommended Inuit-led management in response to cryosphere change in the North Water Polynya. In the past, Inuit would cross between Canada and Greenland along an ice bridge; however, this practice now depends heavily upon uncertain ice and sea-ice conditions. The commission have supported the continuation of this crossing by establishing direct Inuit control over the region and visa-free travel for all Inuit users between Canada and Greenland. 

While Indigenous Peoples work against rising tides, to uphold the traditional livelihoods of Inuit, they continue to be undermined by the lack of ambition shown by state governments. Current projections show that states are a long way off of staying under 1.5°C of warming. Inuit are in the midst of climate relocation and unprecedented adaptation.  More ambitious targets, and urgent action to reach them, are needed now. The Arctic can no longer be thought of as the “dress rehearsal” for the rest of the world. The basic human rights and traditional ways of Inuit are at stake right now, and ambitious NDC’s are needed which reflect the value of their lives and livelihoods too.

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