BY SHEILA WATT-CLOUTIER
The world has come to know the wildlife of the Arctic more than its people: The Inuit.
For two decades my life’s work, which includes elected positions with an international mandate to protect the rights and interests of our people of the circumpolar world, has been to work diligently to put a human face to the urgent environmental, health, and cultural issues affecting us all. Too often, the world still sees the issues of climate change through the lens of politics, economics, and science. For us it is about our children, our families, and our communities, which still rely on the well-being of our environment and climate to feed our families the nutritious bounty of the land and ice.
To me, and to all Indigenous Peoples, and to all those affected by the harmful impacts of climate change, the issues I speak to are all connected—our rights as indigenous peoples are one and the same as our environmental and cultural rights. Indeed, everything is connected.
As one of the world’s most vulnerable regions, the Arctic is undergoing an historic environmental and social change. For decades, the North and its peoples have been subjected to many historical traumas and the most dramatic environmental effects of globalization. Most recently, dramatic climate change caused by greenhouse gases has left virtually no feature of our landscape or our way of life untouched, and now threatens our very culture.
The latest reports of climate change coming in from all of our communities are starker than ever. Virtually every community across the North is now struggling to cope with extreme coastal erosion; melting permafrost; and rapid, destructive runoff that threatens to erode away whole towns especially in Alaska and the western part of our own country of Canada. Despite our last particularly cold winter, our sea ice remains in rapid decline. Glacial melt long relied on for drinking water is now unpredictable, and invasive species travel much further north than ever before. While the size and type of each change varies across the North, the trends are consistent. The change is not just coming. It is already here.
The past two decades, however, have seen more than just dramatic environmental change – they have also witnessed the start of an awakening of a global environmental consciousness, a realization that we are all connected by a common atmosphere and oceans. As Inuit we have been and remain a hunting people of the land, ice, and snow. The process of the hunt teaches our young people to be patient, courageous, bold under pressure, and reflective, and gives them a sense of identity and self worth. The international community has learned from us as well. International agencies, national governments, civil society, and media have begun to see that the Inuit hunter, falling through the melting ice, is connected to the cars we drive, the policies we create, and the disposable world we have become.
As this consciousness has emerged, so too have new and innovative partnerships and solutions to address these problems. Global environmental challenges have been successfully addressed when the international community has come together to acknowledge the connections between far-off sources of pollution and the local impacts on health, environment, and human rights.
While you would never know it today, the links between climate change and human rights were virtually unknown in the broader world just a few years ago before we submitted a climate change petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of Inuit from Alaska and Canada, myself included. The purpose of the petition was to educate and encourage the United States to join the community of nations in a global campaign to combat climate change. This petition was a “gift” from Inuit hunters and elders to the world. It was an act of generosity from an ancient culture deeply tied to the natural environment and still in tune with its wisdom, to an urban, industrial, and “modern” culture that has largely lost its sense of place and position in the natural world.
We successfully translated the human rights dimensions of climate change and its impacts into legal arguments and brought our message to an international human rights tribunal. It was the first case in which the links between human rights and climate change were made clear, but not the last.
As elders, youth, scholars, policymakers, activists, and the general public, we must come together as a collective to address the greatest human rights challenge of our time. This understanding of our ‘collective and interconnectedness’ as a shared humanity is what is needed to spur decision-makers to act urgently and ambitiously to protect our right to a safe climate. My book, The Right To Be Cold, is a human story with the intention to bring a heartbeat to the issues for us to better feel that deep sense of connection to one another no matter where we live. Knowing just how potent that possibility is is what drives me to keep going.
The Right to Be Cold (Minnesota, 2018). She is one of four winners of the 2015 Right Livelihood Awards (also called the “alternative Nobels”) for her work on climate change in the Arctic. In 2007 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy in showing the impact of global climate change on human rights. She has been awarded the Aboriginal Achievement Award, the UN Champion of the Earth Award, and the prestigious Norwegian Sophie Prize. She has received honorary doctorates from twenty universities for her pioneering work linking climate change to human rights. From 1995 to 2002, she served as the elected Canadian president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, and in 2002 she was elected its international chair. Under her leadership, the world’s first international legal action on climate change was launched with a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
"No one writes about the Arctic with more authority than Sheila Watt-Cloutier. Part memoir and part call to arms, The Right to Be Cold is an essential addition to the literature of climate change."
—Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
"Reading this book—the story of a quiet young woman who rose to lead her people in a desperate battle—should give all of us the inspiration we need, whether it's to go to jail blocking pipelines or to run for Congress battling oil companies. We owe Sheila Watt-Cloutier an immense debt."
—Bill McKibben, from the Foreword