Climate change and the Inuit way of life

Random portrait from the National Archives

At several points in the past, Arctic native groups including the Inuit have been effectively involved in the development of international regimes for environmental protection. Perhaps most significant was the role of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference in the development of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Studies done on the human health impact of Arctic POPs on the Inuit provided a big part of the scientific basis for the agreement. Arctic native groups were also effective at pressing their moral claim: chemicals being manufactured elsewhere were poisoning their environment and threatening their way of life.

A similar claim can be made about climate change, though the probable outcome is a lot more negative for Arctic native groups. Relatively few states and companies manufactured the bulk of POPs and, in most cases, less harmful chemicals can be used in their place. The economic costs of phasing out POPs were relatively modest. While the costs of dealing with climate change are a lot lower than the costs that will be incurred through inaction, they are nonetheless many orders of magnitude greater than the costs associated with abatement of POP use.

The threat posed to the Inuit by climate change is also quite a bit more far-reaching. It is entirely possible that the whole Arctic icecap will be gone within twenty years, or even sooner. 2007 was by far the worst year ever recorded for Arctic sea ice. Without summer sea ice, the Arctic ecosystem seems certain to change profoundly. Given the reliance of traditional Inuit lifestyles upon hunting terrestrial and marine mammals, it seems like such conditions would make it impossible to live as the Inuit have lived for millenia. This isn’t even a matter of worst-case scenarios. Even without significant new feedback effects, summer Arctic sea ice is likely to vanish by mid century. Increasing recognition of this partly explains the ongoing scramble to claim Arctic sub-sea mineral rights.

As with small island states, there doesn’t seem to be enormously much hope for avoiding fundamental and perhaps irreversible change in the Arctic.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

6 thoughts on “Climate change and the Inuit way of life”

  1. Ice, ice, maybe (not)
    Must-see ice-sheet TV

    Do you want the latest data — some not yet published — and the best post-IPCC scientific predictions on the stunning collapse of Arctic ice and unexpected shrinking of the Greenland (and Antarctic) ice sheets? Then you should definitely watch this C-SPAN video of yesterday’s American Meteorological Society seminar.

    The seminar is by three of the world’s top cryosphere experts: Dr. Mark Serreze (NOAA), Scott Luthcke (NASA), and Dr. Konrad Steffen (CIRES)…

    It is very safe to say the Arctic Sea will be essentially ice-free by 2030, and I’d personally bet on 2020.

  2. “The most interesting presentation to me was the last one, by Konrad Steffen, who made a convincing case that the IPCC is “underestimating the rate of sea level rise” this century significantly. He expects one meter or more by 2100. The modelers are busy at work trying to account for ice dynamics in ice-sheet collapse — but it may take four or five years for them to do that. When they are finished, sea-level-rise estimates for this century are likely to double or triple.”

  3. For anyone interested in the Arctic and the changing ways of life of the Innuit people, I recommend a novel by Kevin Patterson called “Consumption”. It is interesting, easy to read and compelling.
    Happy Birthday Milan! I wish you all the best always and hope that this will be your best year yet! I look so much to seeing you at Christmas. I love you, your mom

  4. Climate change in the North Pole can be a double edge sword
    November 29, 2007

    Scientists have predicted that by 2070 to 2090, the North Pole area can be ice free in summer. Some are even afraid that by 2040, large part of the ice in the arctic will be melted in summer.

    This will be a disaster for about 250 000 indigenous people such as Inuit people in Canada and Russia, Eskimos and Sami people in Russia, north Sweden, Norway and Finland. They might totally lose their homeland and life will be extremely difficult for them. But on the other hand, it sounds like a good news for ‘petrolholics’ in many other countries, says Mr. Geir Westgaard, special advisor to the Norwegian Foreign Minister.

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