December 3, 2005

Canada’s Inuits Transformed by Global Warming

MONTREAL -- While Canada's isolated northern aboriginals are not sitting at the same table as the 180 nations attending the U.N. Climate Change Conference, they have a front-row seat to the chilling effects of global warming.

From eroding shorelines, to thinning ice and loss of hunting and polar bears, Canadian Inuits of the Arctic north have seen rising temperatures transforming their lives.

"Environmental changes of all kinds are coming at a rate and to an extent that may exceed the threshold of Arctic peoples capacity to respond," states a report released Friday on the sidelines of the conference that is reviewing and expanding on the Kyoto Protocol, which places greenhouse gas emissions caps on industrialized nations.

The report is a result of workshops held across Canada's northern communities between 2002 and 2005 and documents the changes seen in the Arctic through the eyes of Canada's 45,000 Inuits, the natives who are called Eskimos in neighboring Alaska.

Inuit leaders point to the increased frequency of freezing rain, thinning ice and freakish weather patterns forcing centuries of habits to rapidly change.

Natives who have grown up in vast expanses are today finding themselves stranded, their regular paths hindered by melting snow and ice, blocking their hunting routes for the seals and polar bears that provide them food and warmth.

With warmer temperatures, some bacteria, plants and animals could disappear. Polar bears and other animals that depend on sea ice to breed and forage are at risk, scientists say, and some species could face extinction in a few decades.

Inuit leader Jose Kusugak said his community is bearing the brunt of pollution by others. The United States contributes about one-fourth of the greenhouse gases that scientists believe are exacerbating global warming and Canada is also a top polluter.

"It is changing our way of life in every sense of the word," Kusugak told The Associated Press in an interview. He said the risk of skin cancer had also increased in a community used to spending much of its time outdoors.

"People are not used to sunscreen but they need to wear it today, everybody is getting burned," Kusugak said. "When I was a kid, we liked to stay outside all day and only went in to sleep. It was part of our life - and now it is changing."

The shrinking access to food means Inuit are relying more on expensive, store-bought foods, which is damaging diets and their overall health.

Kusugak said he brought along hunters, trappers and Inuit elders to the conference to reassure them that people from the south were not indifferent to their plight.

"It was important to show there are a lot of people in the world who care," he said.


U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change: http://www.unfccc.int