Inuit activist says "climate trauma" threatens her people's Arctic future


By Amanda Hermans One of the world’s most recognized environmental and human-rights activists today, Sheila Watt-Cloutier spoke Monday at Northwestern to promote her book The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet. Watt-Cloutier is an Inuit, one of the remaining Canadian-indigenous peoples that call the Arctic home. She has worked for many years to defend her people and their way of life through mitigating climate change. In addition to being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, Watt-Cloutier, has been awarded the Aboriginal Achievement Award, the U.N. Champion of the Earth Award, the prestigious Norwegian Sophie Prize, and is also an officer of the Order of Canada.

Here are my five major takeaways from her eye-opening talk:

The Arctic is experiencing major ecological and climate changes

In that Arctic, it is impossible to turn a blind-eye to the effects of the changing climate. The Arctic is shifting way more rapidly than anywhere else on earth, and those changes bode poorly for the rest of the world. Watt-Cloutier told stories of animals in her hometown that have never appeared there before, from bees to birds to new species of fish. The effects that these new populations will have on local ecology are still unknown, but they have serious potential to mess with the Artic ecosystem that the Inuit depend on for food and economy. In addition, she said melting ice has made the ice sheets harder to read, causing the number of deaths in Inuit communities from breaking through the ice during hunts to sky-rocket.

The Inuit people are strong and adaptable, but their world is changing too quickly

“We have had a break-down of society in our world, we have addictions issues, we have violence issues, we have a lot of poverty,” Watt-Cloutier said. She pointed to a series of events, mostly within her lifetime, that jarred the Inuit away from their traditions. These include a growing dependence on government funding due to a lack of markets for trapping and hunting, forced relocations, and now the changes in ecology and the ice due to climate change. All of these events occurred within the last two centuries, and have compounded so it’s been impossible for the Inuit to adapt quickly enough. Because of the decline in hunting and other traditional means of learning, the Inuit are unable to teach their children the important values of patience, perseverance, boldness, and steadfastness under stress. “Our children ... have lost the ability to learn about themselves on that snow and ice and land. We need to keep our children learning the character skills that they so need to combat the stressors of the modern world,” Watt-Cloutier said.

We must protect the planet for the next generations

Because of the dangers facing the young Inuit today, as well as young people all over the world, the action we take now to combat climate change must keep future generations in mind. “It’s very personal for me, as a mother and grandmother,” Watt-Cloutier said. “It’s about making sure they have that solid ground, that solid ice, that I had as a child.” Watt-Cloutier finds hope in the acceptance that her message has found worldwide, and sees a silver lining in her people’s dire situation-- the climate change trauma in the Arctic has spurred a connection of people across cultures all working toward the same goal of protecting their children’s future.

Don’t just jump in and help without understanding context

As Northwestern students, we are taught to use our skills and our minds to produce good in the world. We are young, able-bodied, and often have the money to go at the drop of a hat to stop injustice in places worldwide. Watt-Cloutier urges us to slow down and truly understand the context before diving in to help, as well as to ask permission first. She told a story of an animal rights group who traveled to the Arctic with the mission of getting polar bears onto the “vulnerable” conservation listing. This action, though made with good intentions, limited the traditional rights of the Inuit to hunt polar bears, and also diminished the job market for Inuit guides who help travelers hunt polar bears for sport. “There are ways in which they can go up. Not by parachuting themselves into communities, but by working with the leadership there,” Watt-Cloutier said. “You have to first build a trust with people.” She urged against the “missionary” or classic white-savior approach, which has done more damage than good in the past.

We are all connected

The main message of Watt-Cloutier’s talk was that what is happening in the northern Arctic inextricably effects the whole world. When chemicals are emitted from plants and industry, they tend to travel through the atmosphere to the Arctic sink, accumulating in the bodies of species millions of miles away. When ice melts in the north, the sea rises and island nations begin to disappear in other parts of the world. She spoke of her efforts through the U.N. to engage with other indigenous groups across the world to work together on climate change. Ultimately, humanity has one world to care for and live on, and its destruction is a human rights issue for everyone. It is because of this that all peoples, world-wide, should come together to combat the issue of climate change.

“This responsibility is all of ours. We have to start to signal to the world that this is about all of us as a common humanity,” Watt-Cloutier said.

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