8 September 2007

We are all skating on thin ice

By Marguerite Finn

An award ceremony took place in New York on 20th June this year, without much media attention. A female Inuit leader won a prestigious United Nations award for activism against climate change. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a 53-year-old political leader representing indigenous communities in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia – and a nominee for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize together with former US Vice-President Al Gore – received the Mahbub ul Haq Award for Excellence in Human Development from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Sheila was born in Nunavik in Canada's frozen north. Her mother was a skilful healer and interpreter and for the first ten years of her life, Sheila was raised traditionally, travelling on the land by dog sled before being sent to school in Nova Scotia. From the mid-1970s she worked to improve the education and health of the Inuit people. Elected President of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) in 1995, she served as spokesperson for Arctic indigenous peoples in negotiating the banning of the manufacture and use of 'persistent organic pollutants' (including DDT), which had entered the Arctic food chain and accumulated in the bodies of the Inuit.

More recently, Sheila's work has concentrated on the impact of global climate change on the Arctic. Claiming that unchecked greenhouse gas emissions violated Inuit cultural and environmental rights, she declared: "The world must pay attention to what is happening to Arctic communities because we are the early warning system for the rest of the planet".

It is generally accepted that the Arctic is the barometer of global environmental health. In May this year Aqqaluk Lynge, Greenlander and current President of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, made a similar point in a devastating critique of the link between Britain's cheap flights and the effects of climate change on his people and he pleaded for an end to plans to expand Stansted airport. His testimony, given to the on-going public enquiry into plans to increase the capacity of London's third airport, is as relevant to discussions about the expansion of Norwich Airport as it is to Stansted.

Arguing that the effects of flying from Stansted, where 80 percent of flights are on budget carriers and eight out of ten passengers are travelling for leisure, are felt far beyond Britain in the vast Inuit ice fields stretching from Russia's Bering Straits to Greenland, Mr Lynge pointed out: "There is now a connection between our backyard and your backyard and we would like you to question some points of your lifestyle such as flying and creating more emissions. That is why Stansted is important. Getting on a plane in England for a cheap holiday is felt here on the Arctic ice today".

No country in the world is immune to the effects of the actions of another. The Arctic is being disproportionately affected by the global warming created by our carbon emissions. Emissions from the extra flights at Stansted, if the expansion is permitted, will increase from five million tonnes to seven million tonnes each year – the equivalent of the emissions that would be saved if every home in the UK switched to energy saving bulbs. Yet to suggest making such simple changes to our precious lifestyles provokes howls of rage. The Government has lost the plot. It's plans to cater for up to 460 million passengers at UK airports by 2020 are directly at odds with its vow to cut carbon emissions by 60 percent by 2050.

For generations, the Inuit lived in harmony with their environment and travelled safely on the sea-ice to hunt seals, whales and other animals for essential food. Today the ice flows - their traditional hunting grounds - have disappeared. Melting sea-ice and thawing permafrost have caused fatal damage to the infrastructure of their towns and villages. We, in the industrialised countries have placed the Inuit in the 'firing line' of global warming. They are experiencing at first hand the effects of indisputable climate change.

Their plight is a salutary warning. Discussions about climate change focus on political, economic and technical issues rather than human impacts and consequences. The refusal to even consider a modification, however slight, to Western 'lifestyle' is extremely short-sighted. It is not just the Inuit who are skating on thin ice. What is happening to the Inuit today will happen in Britain and Europe tomorrow – so what price 'cheap flights' then?

Which is more important: regular visits to see grandchildren in Washington DC and cheap holidays in the sun, or ensuring that the Inuit children have a present in which to grow up and that the grandchildren have a future in which to do the same?