Inuit, environmentalists lobby for action at Paris climate conference

Inuit and environmental groups are at the climate change summit in Paris to warn against the the environmental, human and security threats of climate change and lobby for action.

'We've given our voices and our faces to the issue of climate change,' says ITK president

'As the ice melts and the passage becomes more open other countries are going to test our sovereignty over the Northwest Passage,' says Paul Crowley, director of WWF-Canada's Arctic Program. 'We’d be better off with a frozen Arctic.' (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

Inuit and environmental groups are at the climate change summit in Paris to warn against the the environmental, human and security threats of climate change and lobby for action.

The United Nations 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) started this week in Paris, bringing together indigenous and environmental groups from across the globe lobbying for decisive action on climate change that address both the environmental as well as the human cost of global warming.  

"I think it's extremely important that the national leaders and the national governments know that the eyes of the people of the world are on them," said David Miller, president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund-Canada.

Miller has partnered with Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an award-winning Inuit leader for her work on climate change, to speak about the impact of climate change on nature and the environment as well as the people in the Arctic.

The melting of sea ice will not only affect ice-dependent species but also the traditional Inuit way of life, said Miller.

"That's why we need to see strong action in Paris this year."

Inuit need to be 'recognized, respected, funded'

Leaders of several Inuit organizations are also in Paris to ensure that the needs of the people of the Arctic are on the agenda.

Okalik Eegeesiak, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, stands with French president François Hollande at COP21 in Paris. (submitted by Okalik Eegeesiak)

Okalik Eegeesiak, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), is at the summit, and spoke at the opening of the indigenous pavilion.

"We're lobbying governments to ensure that Inuit and Saami people of the Arctic region are recognized, respected, funded, to participate at every level in climate change adaptation and mitigation," said Eegeesiak.

She said it's been a challenge in the first few days of the summit to organize their lobbying efforts but added that their work with the Canadian government has been a success.

ICC and Cathy Towtongie, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the organization that oversees the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, had a "very positive" meeting with Catherine McKenna, Canada's Minister of Environment, said Eegeesiak.

"The minister reiterated that Canada supports the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples and working with us to try to sort out those types of phrases that are included in the agreement," said Eegeesiak.

'Voices and faces'

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada's national Inuit organization, said it's a positive sign that the Minister of Environment asked him to be part of Canada's official delegation at COP21.

"We've given our voices and our faces to the issue of climate change in relation to the Arctic," said Obed.

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, says 'We’ve given our voices, and our faces to the issue of climate change in relation to the Arctic.' (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)
"We've been very vocal about the need to reduce and stabilize gas emissions and we have been talking quite a bit about the effects that we see in our homeland."

He said Inuit knowledge about the environment coupled with western science "can be very powerful when it comes to articulating the reason why we need to act, and act now, to combat climate change."

'Security blanket' on the planet

Paul Crowley, director of WWF-Canada's Arctic program in Iqaluit, said not addressing climate change could have repercussions for Arctic sovereignty and national security, a position that he also argued at the Conference Board of Canada's conference on Climate Change, Security and Defence

"In terms of military conflicts and reducing the chance of military conflicts, the Arctic plays a really important role as a security blanket to ensure that our climate is stable," said Crowley.

Crowley said that some research has linked the conflict in Syria to water issues that resulted from climate change. Some have made a similar connection to conflicts in Sudan and Somalia. 

"Security is best found by keeping the planet stable," Crowley said, "and the Arctic plays an incredibly important role in keeping weather patterns, climate, oceans stable and therefore much more secure for the planet."

The melting of the Arctic can also threaten Canada's claim on Arctic sovereignty, he said, noting that ice-free waters could allow other countries "to test our sovereignty over the Northwest Passage."

For Crowley, success at COP21 would be for Canada to take leadership on lower greenhouse gas emissions.

"What I'd like to see is Canada be at the forefront of pushing for an eventual reduction of greenhouse gases that will keep us to 1.5 C," said Crowley.

Much of the wording for the Paris agreement will be finalized by the end of this week. After that, country-to-country negotiations will start. The summit will wrap up on Dec. 11.