'Hope is not a plan': Northerners call for action after harrowing UN climate report

After a summer of record-breaking temperatures and floods in the North, findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are unsurprising for some northerners. Now they're renewing calls for drastic climate action.

Report makes especially stark predictions for the North

Asad Chishti, a climate and community organizer in Whitehorse, says a drastic change in lifestyle is necessary to combat the harmful effects of climate change. (Peter Siemens)

Madeleine Redfern's brother was snowmobiling on the ice of Frobisher Bay in 2014 when it happened.

"He went through the ice where historically it had been solid, and thankfully, he was able to be rescued by helicopter," said Redfern, a former mayor of Iqaluit. "Otherwise we would have lost him." 

Her brother's story is no longer unique, says Redfern. "There have been a number of hunters that have gone through sea ice around the North. Ice roads in other northern regions are having shorter periods and there's more risk of vehicles falling through."

Arctic lands and water aren't what they used to be. Redfern says conditions are less predictable. Annual freeze-ups are happening later, and breakups earlier. Places where ice was once frozen solid are now more precarious. 

All this is a grim reminder that the consequences of climate change are being felt right now. 

On Monday, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a harrowing assessment of the planet's present and future climate. 

It says weather extremes will intensify as global warming continues, and many changes to ice sheets and sea levels will be irreversible for centuries to come. 

For the polar regions, the report's findings are especially stark. 

It's likely that warming has occurred in the Arctic at more than twice the global rate. More frequent and severe coastal flooding is essentially guaranteed, it says. 

Perhaps most alarming: the Arctic Ocean is projected to become virtually ice-free during the summer at least once over the next 30 years.

This summer laid bare the real cost to Northern communities of new and escalating environmental change. 

There were record-breaking temperatures in Yukon and the Northwest Territories. The N.W.T.'s Dehcho region and Yukon's Southern Lakes and Lake Laberge areas saw severe flooding. 

'If we don't act quickly and we don't act now, it's going to cost us a lot more,' said Madeleine Redfern, former mayor of Iqaluit. (Sara Frizzell/CBC)

In Nunavut, reports came in of salmon and other wildlife encroaching on territory where they are not typically seen. 

Thawing and slumping permafrost, said Redfern, is affecting Nunavut buildings, roads and airport runways. 

"If we don't act quickly and we don't act now, it's going to cost us a lot more," she said. "There's going to also be a lot more unpredictability, and harms, and potentially loss of life." 

Changes will 'ruin cultural activities'

If nothing is done, climate change will "ruin cultural activities," said Eriel Lugt, one of seven teenagers from Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., who made a documentary on climate change in 2019 that caught the attention of the United Nations

"For our community [climate change] is quite noticeable, as we have the Arctic Ocean right here," she said over Facebook Messenger on Monday.

"The water rises and takes chunks out of our land, and also melts permafrost which we are based on."

For Lugt, young people's involvement in climate action is essential, because it's their future that's at stake. 

The midnight sun shines across sea ice along the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic in 2017. A UN report released Monday says warming in the Arctic has occurred at more than twice the global rate. (David Goldman/The Associated Press)

To Asad Chishti, the UN's climate change report isn't surprising. 

The Whitehorse-based climate and community organizer says it's going to take a massive remodeling of global and local economies to protect the planet for future generations. 

"[For] Yukoners or northerners, to be in line with what these targets demand, our lifestyles would have to change so drastically," he said.

The complexity of the issue is personal for Chishti.

He says his father fed their family with a job in the oil and gas industry. 

"Oil and gas workers aren't to blame," said Chishti.

"All of us who have these cars, and who have these homes that run on diesel generators here in the North, during the winter — we drive that demand, which then pushes industry to supply.

He said every person needs to take responsibility for putting fossil fuels "on such a pedestal."

With a federal election expected this fall, Chishti has this message for candidates: "If climate change ... is not one of your top two, top three priorities, don't run."

Climate considerations, he says, must be integrated into every platform plank, from transportation policy to housing. 

Chishti encourages people to hold onto hope.

"But also," he said, "hope is not a plan."