The faces of climate change: How a rapidly warming Arctic is destroying a way of life

In all the coverage about the effects of climate change, what's often missing is the faces of those most affected: the people who live in the North.

It isn't 'just about polar bears, it's about the people,' Inuit environmental activist says

A photographic project soon to be an exhibit at the Ontario Science Centre aims to capture the faces of those hardest hit by the effects of climate change, like this Pangnirtung elder, Anna Akulujuk. (Julie Alivaktuk)

There is no shortage of alarming climate change stories. We hear about the rapid rate of Arctic sea ice loss; about abnormally high temperatures in the Far North; polar bears resorting to eating birds' eggs instead of meat to survive.

We are becoming collateral damage.- Sheila  Watt-Cloutier

What's often absent in these stories is the faces of those most affected. People have been living in the challenging climate of the North for what some estimate to be 20,000 years. It is their home. It is their way of life. 

But their home is changing, and they are racing to change with it.

Rapid change

The Arctic is the fastest-warming place on Earth, with the average temperature increasing by about 3.5 C since the beginning of the 20th century. And many climatologists believe that we're just beginning to see the effects of a warming planet; the climate is playing catch-up with the increased CO2 gases we have been emitting into the atmosphere.

At a meeting of the Canadian Association of Science Centres in Toronto last month, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, spoke of the toll the changing Arctic is taking on the people who live there. Watt-Cloutier, a passionate voice on personalizing climate change, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for her efforts.

We are being asked to pay the price for the unsustainable choices most of the world continues to want to maintain.- Sheila Watt-Cloutier

She notes that for thousands of years people have been able to adapt to the nature of the North. They've learned to make tools, hunt, fish and navigate the land. And while their surroundings were once somewhat predictable, that is no longer the case: temperatures are warmer; ice is thinner, forms later and melts sooner; permafrost is disappearing; animals are changing their habits. 

"Climate change in the Arctic is not just some environmental issue. It really is a matter of livelihood. It's a matter of food for our people. It is a matter of individual and cultural survival," Watt-Cloutier told the gathered group at the Ontario Science Centre. 

"As the ice melts, the wisdom it has taught us threatens to disappear along with it."

Sheila Watt-Cloutier was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for her advocacy work on human rights and climate change.

The Ontario Science Centre plans to add a permanent exhibit this summer that documents the issue Watt-Cloutier speaks about.

The display, called Portraits of Resilience, comes from the work of photographer Christine Germano, who has turned her lens to the faces of those experiencing the effects of climate change. 

Germano allows the people to tell their own stories: they take the camera and photograph the ways in which climate change is forcing them to alter their way of life. 

One boy, Johnny Kilabuck, shared his story with Germano.

"The arena in [Baffin Island Inuit community] Pangnirtung used to open October or the beginning of November," he wrote.

A zamboni sits on the sandy surface of the ice rink in Pangnirtung, Nunavut. (Johnny Kilabuck)

"Now it opens the end of December or beginning of January. The ice doesn't freeze as much as it used to because of climate change. The ice used to start melting the end of May; now it starts to melt in April."

A youth who can't play hockey as much as he once could, or wants to, is not a trivial thing in the North, where the suicide rate is six times the national average. Diversions aren't just welcome, they're needed.

'Unsustainable choices'

So far, the North — a pristine refuge of nature — has been relatively untouched by global market forces and the tapping of natural resources. Yet this stands to change as the climate changes. And it is the people who suffer the consequences, Watt-Cloutier says.

"We have benefited the very least from industry, and yet we are the most disproportionately negatively impacted by ... globalization," Watt-Cloutier said. "We are being asked to pay the price for the unsustainable choices most of the world continues to want to maintain. We are becoming, in fact, collateral damage."

Germano shares a story that illustrates just how well the people living in the North know what is coming. And it's not just about Canadians.

Climate change? What about cultural change?- Julie Alivaktuk

She said a quiet and reserved 15-year-old boy from Greenland named Michael attended a museum exhibit profiling stories of the North at the United Nations COP 15 climate change conference in December 2009. 

To the dignitaries gathered in Copenhagen he said: "I live in Uummannaq. I was born there, and I love Uummannaq. Since the ice has been melting, many developers and industries have come to Greenland to look for resources to make money. I just have one thing to say: F--k the money!"

'We need to stop what we are doing to this planet'

Others have shared accounts with CBC News of seasoned hunters falling through the ice or having to find alternate, longer routes to hunt, as their people have done for thousands of years. The unpredictability increases costs in a region where the cost of living is two to three times higher than any other part of the country.

"Climate change? What about cultural change?" said Julie Alivaktuk, who is part of Germano's project.

Danny Ishulutak told Germano a bridge in his community sank by 10 feet overnight due to melting permafrost. The bridge is more than just convenient: it's a lifeline. Food, supplies, even drinking water cross it.

Janet Evic spoke with Joanasie Qappik who said he's noticed glaciers melting, ice thinning and more instances of flooding in Pangnirtung. "I am not a scientist nor am I a meteorologist, but I am telling you what I’ve noticed from the past." (Janet Evic)

"There was no school for a bit. It was hard to provide us with fresh water, and sewage was dumped into the ocean for a while. People that lived on the other side of town had a hard time going to the store to buy groceries," Ishulutak said. "This is what happened in Pangnirtung last summer because of climate change. We really need to stop what we are doing to this planet."

There are many more stories like these. And they are likely to multiply as the Arctic warms. 

Which is why those who live there say the talk about climate change has to focus more on the people, and how the transformation of the North is annihilating an ancient way of life. 

"Climate change isn't just about polar bears," Watt-Cloutier said. "It's about the people."

About the Author

Nicole Mortillaro

Senior Writer, Science and Technology

Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.