“We’re in meltdown”

Sea ice in the Arctic has fallen to a record low -- and the locals now wear shorts and T-shirts in summer. Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier tells Louise Johncox how climate change is threatening her people’s way of life.

In the remote frozen outpost of Iqaluit on Baffin Island, northern Canada, Sheila Watt-Cloutier is a local celebrity. My Inuit taxi driver talks with pride about her as we crawl along the snow-covered roads to her home. This is no picturesque winter Christmas card scene with children throwing snowballs. It is -25 degrees Celsius (-13 Fahrenheit), a blizzard is blowing and the empty streets resemble frozen rivers. I've arranged to talk to Watt-Cloutier about global warming and I am shivering in the back of a cab despite three layers of extreme-weather clothing.

Since 1995, Watt-Cloutier has been involved in the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), the international body that represents the 155,000 Inuits in Canada, Greenland, Alaska and the Russian far east. She was elected president of ICC Canada in 1995 and international chair in 2002, a position she held until 2006. She is bringing serious issues of global warming and environmental degradation to the world’s attention: issues that are having catastrophic effects on her own people. The latest research, by University of Colorado climatologists, the extent of the Arctic sea ice has fallen to unprecedented levels, following a rapid disintegration of the ice in July.

She appears like any ordinary 53-year-old grandmother, with a house full of extended family and something boiling on the stove. The view from her living room window is a classic Arctic vista of snow. It is pure white as far as the eye can see — a perfect contrast to the cozy, colourful room, where family photographs mingle with awards and trophies. As the blizzard rages outside, she offers a steaming cup of tea and a plate of homemade Arctic berry pie. Not surprisingly, the subject turns to the weather.

“The weather here is always unpredictable and variable. It was an unusually long, cold spring, the summer has been very cold and wet and the warmth has just arrived now,” she says. “I speak to the Inuit elders and they are constantly telling me how unpredictable it is. As a result, traditional knowledge is being challenged.”

She talks with passion about the fact that increasing numbers of hunters are falling through the ice, citing her neighbour, Simon Nattak, who had to have his legs amputated below the knees. “He fell through the ice and they found him two or three days later when his legs were frozen. It’s a remarkable story because he is an experienced hunter, yet even he couldn’t read the condition of the ice. What you see on the surface of the ice may look like what you've been taught for generations, but the ice is forming differently because the Arctic sink is warmer.”

While Watt-Cloutier acknowledges that the sea ice is disappearing four times faster around Baffin Island than the rest of the Arctic, the evidence of global warming is everywhere, she argues. “In Baffin, yes, the floe edge is much closer than before. In Greenland, the ice sheet is melting much faster than anything that they have ever experienced in the past few years. Alaska has been hit very hard as communities are literally falling into the sea.”

As the ice depletes, so the habitat of the wildlife is being challenged.” The 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), which incorporates our traditional knowledge as well as science, says that the Arctic is warming and melting quickly, the rate of change is accelerating and that emissions of greenhouse gases worldwide are the cause,” she says. “It also concludes that marine mammals — including polar bears, walruses — and some species of marine birds are threatened by possible extinction by the middle to the end of the century, as is our hunting culture which largely depends on the cold, ice and snow.”

Watt-Cloutier has been motivated in her work by her nine-year-old grandson, Lee, whose photograph sits proudly in her living room. "Lee drives my work. It’s for him, his children and grandchildren,” she says. "Lee is learning to hunt with his father, but he may be the generation that will lose this in his lifetime. He was very proud when he got his first seal last summer and I want him to continue to learn hunting skills on the land and ice. The wisdom of our hunting culture is not just about killing; it is a powerful training ground for young people. It builds the character skills of judgment, courage, patience, strength under pressure and withstanding stress, which together is the wisdom that will help our young people to change, to choose life over self-destruction."

Watt-Cloutier was born in 1953 in the town of Kuujjuaq, part of northern Quebec that has been designated as the administrative capital of a self-governing region of Nunavik, which has been agreed in principle. She was raised traditionally by her mother and grandmother and travelled by dog sled until the age of 10. Her two brothers were the only males in the house and they became hunters at a young age. She was sent away to pursue a good education in southern Canada and attended McGill University in Montreal, where she specialised in education and human development. Before entering politics in 1995, her background was in social issues. "There are a lot of dependency issues here, with high levels of addiction, crime and suicide," she says. "People are struggling because of the tumultuous change that has happened in a short period. We're coming from an ice age to a space age in one lifetime."

In a pioneering move, Watt-Cloutier launched the world's first legal action on climate change when she claimed that global warming is a human-rights issue. In 2005, she sent the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) a petition that stated: "The subsistence culture central to Inuit cultural identity has been damaged by climate change and may cease to exist if action is not taken by the United States in concert with the community of nations."

Why did she take such drastic action? "This is a piece of legal work to defend our human rights," she says. "They couldn't get their heads around it being a human rights violation and sat on it for a year. I wrote back saying it was absolutely necessary and they gave us a hearing on March 1." This was the first time that the Inter-American Commission considered a petition where indigenous citizens of one country claimed the environmental policies of another were violating their rights.

Climate change is certainly changing people's lives in the Arctic. The rising temperatures in the spring and summer months have resulted in an astonishing demand for air conditioners. "The day Arctic people buy air conditioners, you go, 'Something's wrong here!'" She explains that Arctic homes and offices are designed for the cold and therefore do not lose the heat. "Two springs ago, temperatures hit 35C (95 degrees Fahrenheit) near my home town. Inuit elders had to wet their sheets with cold water in order to help them sleep because it was so hard to breathe." As a child, Watt-Cloutier does not recall wearing shorts or T-shirts in the summer or bathing in the river. "Today, we can go weeks on end at 25 to 30C when the community swims in the river in bathing suits."

But what is more shocking is that Inuit mothers have to think carefully before breastfeeding their babies — in case they poison them with persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Watt-Cloutier has perhaps done more than anyone to bring the issue onto the political agenda. "POPs are finding their way up to the Arctic through the weather patterns, making their way to the bottom of the Arctic sink," she explains. "The marine mammals eat them, we eat the marine mammals and then we carry the burden in our bodies higher than anywhere else."

When Watt-Cloutier discovered that levels of substances in the breast milk of Inuit women were higher than anywhere else in the world, it brought an added sense of urgency to her campaigning. Armed with this information, she entered the United Nations political arena with a clear message. "We went into the negotiations at the UN to tell the world, 'Hold it, this is not business as usual any more. There are people in the Arctic who are being poisoned from afar.'"

She has received a clutch of worldwide awards. Earlier this year she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, along with Al Gore. "The nomination adds credibility to the work that I've done. It wasn't easy to take the bold step of the human-rights angle," she admits.

Watt-Cloutier is delighted that her Nobel nomination has helped to raise awareness of the cause. "I have received awards, so this isn't about me getting an award," she says. "It is good for the Inuit world as a whole that I should be recognised in this way. Climate change is the defining issue of our time that will ultimately impact on us all. The Inuit are giving the world the gift of an early warning."

Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007