People: Northern Exposure

Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Inuit leader Sheila Watt-Cloutier speaks for the first victims of global warming

By Susan Cosier

The consequences of global warming—melting ice caps, rising seas, and warmer temperatures—will eventually affect people all over the world, but in the Arctic, Inuit people are already bearing the brunt of the change. In Nunavut, the northernmost region of Canada, Inuit leader Sheila Watt-Cloutier, 53, has dedicated her career to advocating for her people—and these days, that means fighting hard to make sure climate change doesn’t destroy their ancient way of life. Watt-Cloutier began lobbying for environmental justice in the ’90s as a member of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, a non-governmental Inuit rights group. In 2004, as chair of the group, she helped pass the Stockholm Convention, a United Nations treaty aimed at eliminating persistent organic pollutants that have accumulated in food sources—such as whale blubber—that are staples of the Inuit diet. But in the past several years, as northern temperatures have continued to rise, Watt-Cloutier has shifted her attention to climate change. In 2005, with the support of hunters and elders from her community, she submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in hopes that the group would urge the United States to curb its carbon emissions; in the age of global warming, says Watt-Cloutier, those emissions amount to a human rights violation against the Inuit. The petition was rejected, but the world took notice, and last February she was nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Plenty caught up with Watt-Cloutier on a couple of occasions to ask about her people, her work, and her nomination.

How is global warming affecting the Inuit people?
The ice is forming much later in the fall, and it’s breaking up much earlier in the spring. The conditions of the ice and snow have changed so much and so dramatically that when the ice forms, it is very difficult to read in terms of safety. We have glaciers that are melting very quickly. Streams that used to be very safe for our hunters to cross have now become torrential rivers. There are even a couple of communities that have to be relocated since they’re literally falling into the sea.

Have these developments changed how the Inuit live?
Yes. When the ice starts to break up too quickly in the springtime and people are still hunting and fishing, they need to take much longer routes. This costs more for people because they have to bring more supplies and more fuel to get to the same point than they used to.

How do you convey the idea that global warming is not just an Inuit problem, but a global one?
Often I tell people that as the Arctic is melting; other places, like the small island developing states, are sinking because of sea level rise. If you want to understand the health of our planet, come north to take its pulse. What is happening in the Arctic is happening first and fastest, but it is going to happen everywhere else. It’s all very connected.

Do you think that the global community is aware of the degree that climate change is affecting the Inuit? 
There’s a growing awareness. I really saw the shift happen when we started to make the connection between this issue and human rights. It raised awareness that climate change was not just about technology or politics. It wasn’t just about carbon sinks and emissions trading and greenhouse gases. There really are people far away from the source of these pollutants and greenhouse gases whose lives are being disproportionately impacted.

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Issue 25

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