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Climate Change and Inuit Tribes

One of the most ubiquitous talks of the 21st century is about climate change. Among the vast inventions of mankind that range from gargantuan to dwarfed scopes of life, climate change bears an egregious blot. Michael Crichton, in his famous book Jurassic Park, states the significance of this issue: “…the earth would survive our folly, only we would not.” Today, climate change is widely accepted as an ongoing phenomenon, yet it is seen as a source of distant danger. It doesn’t seem to affect our daily activities. But, what about those who are battling climate change on a day-to-day basis? Besides the rising temperatures and increasing levels of carbon dioxide, several communities are at stake, particularly the Inuit tribe of the Arctic Circle. The Inuits are fighting a ravaging war against climate change. Glaciers are soon to be a monument of the past. Barack Obama on his own recent trip to Alaska described the melting glaciers and thawing permafrost as “a glimpse of our children’s fate if the climate keeps changing faster than our efforts to address it.” Is climate change a precursor to the destruction of the Inuit tribes?

Image result for melting glaciers arctic circle

Disruption of the Marine Ecosystems

The Arctic, which is warming at twice the rate of lower latitudes, has already shot beyond the norms: average annual air temperatures have increased by nearly three degrees( Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) Arctic Report). If trends continue, scientists at the EPA conclude that northern Alaska is expected to warm another six degrees by the end of the century. This unprecedented surge in atmospheric temperature is already being felt all across the Arctic region. In an initial assessment of Maine’s climatic future, researchers at the University of Maine have predicted increasingly warmer temperatures all year round leading to greater snowmelt runoff. This, in turn, leads to warmer oceans and marine biomes, causing warmer temperatures and sea levels to rise as warmer ocean water expands.  This rise in sea level has intensified in recent decades, threatening to destabilize many of our coastal environments and community livelihoods. Regional Arctic sea surface temperatures have increased almost 1.1°C since 1970 and could rise another 4°C. ( Daigal et al. 17) . This surge of water and climatic temperatures consequentially leads to the disruption of marine ecosystems, directly impacting the Inuit tribes that depend on a local marine-driven economy.

Change in Dietary Practices

The Inuit homeland stretches from the easternmost tip of Russia in the west to Greenland in the east, and today the Inuits live in four nations. Inuits, who have a long of history of being nomadic, hunter-gatherers have long depended on the traditional food systems available directly from the environment. The settlement has expanded dramatically since the 1960s, and the economy has shifted from being based entirely on subsistence activities to a mixed economy where both the informal and formal economic sectors assume an important role (Damas et al. 22). The diet of Inuit tribes derives mainly from sea mammals, seaweeds, and berries. But the rapidly declining glaciers and warming of the oceans has brought a significant change in the diet, culture as well as the health of the tribes. According to research conducted by an expert at the Nutrition Research Institute, in addition to presently disturbing the traditional food systems, climate change is also projected to affect the global food chain systems. With the melting glaciers and increase in the sea temperatures, the walruses are “ill-adapted” leading to their sharp decline. (Cooper et al. 98) 4. This will, in turn, result in inequitable costs to people who rely on both the systems, like the Inuit people. Peter Bjerregaard, a researcher in health-related behavior at the National Institute of Public Health, concluded that chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease are on the increase, while accidents, suicides, violence, and substance abuse are of major importance for the pattern of ill health in most Inuit communities. With the lack of traditional food systems, the depression and suicide rates have soared and is evident in the suicide rates that range from 200-250 for every 1000 individuals at the ages of 15-24 ( Bjerregaard et al. 12). The melting permafrost will make it more difficult to freeze food in the traditional ways, and the shifting ground will damage sanitation and water supply systems. (UN Report of the Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change 23). This will affect Inuit health and well-being, either physically because they threaten the safety of food and water, or socially and mentally because they threaten the way of life upon which Inuit identity is based. 

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The Vulnerability of the Local Economy

Dietary practices often reflect the economy of the local region. Another factor that results from climate change is the local economy of the Inuit tribes. According to Dr. Ford, the changing climate has severely impacted the wage-based local economy, leaving the Inuits vulnerable. The bowheads are rapidly decreasing, making harpooning increasingly difficult; local fishers are out of stock and with sea levels rising, the low coast villages face a constant risk of flooding. These environmental injuries present a grave set of harms, both present, and prospective, to the Inuit people and economy. One of the greatest harms will be the forced removal of indigenous communities from their traditional lands (Tsosie et. al 1673). The crashing, vulnerable economy presents yet another danger to the Inuit livelihoods adding to the many factors pushing towards the abandonment of their traditional lands.

With multiple pieces of evidence linking to disruption of their biosphere, dietary practices, and economy, it is important that correct action is taken to stop further destruction. Today, around 155,000 lives are at risk at the Arctic Circle. According to “ Climate change in the Arctic: An Inuit Reality” published in the UN Chronicle, this phenomenon is not confined solely to the Inuit tribes, but several other accounts have been revealed by Saami in northern Norway, Aleut in the Aleutian Islands, Athabaskans and Gwich’in in North America, Nenets, Chukchi and many other indigenous peoples in northern Russia. With the passage of important reforms such as the Kyoto Protocol, the United Nations has proven to be instrumental in bringing nations together to limit carbon dioxide production. Similarly, it is important that the United Nations take a role in this issue and partner up with Inuit Circumpolar Council, a non-profit organization that promotes Inuit rights on a global level to (i) establish partnerships with Inuit communities to look further into the threats posed by the food stocks and its impact on the economy; (ii) engage in collaborative research in developing healthcare reforms to address the sanitation and flooding impacts; (iii) maintain ongoing dialogue between countries to spread awareness of the Inuit condition and (iv) create alternate food source opportunities, besides the traditional marine-based diets, so that the Inuits have a constant source of food alternative. The Inuits thrive on the cultural tenet of Qiksiksrautiqaġniq Iñuuniaġvigmun (respect for nature) and it is only a matter of time when this coalition relationship between Inuit tribes and their native environment turns to become a dichotomous one.

Edited by: Nelli Morgulchik, Ruby Halfacre, & Shreya Singireddy

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Cooper, Lee W., et al. “Rapid seasonal sea-ice retreat in the Arctic could be affecting Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) recruitment.” Aquatic Mammals 32.1 (2006): 98. 

“Climate Change In The Arctic: An Inuit Reality | UN Chronicle.” United Nations. United Nations. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.

Daigle, J. J., and David Putnam. Maine’s climate future: An initial assessment. University of Maine, Orono(2009): 35-38.

Ford, James D., Tanya R. Smith, and Lea Berrang-Ford. “Canadian Federal support for climate change and health research compared with the risks posed.” American Journal of Public Health101.5 (2011): 814-821.

Ford, James D., et al. “Vulnerability to climate change in Igloolik, Nunavut: what we can learn from the past and present.” Polar Record 42.02 (2006): 127-138.

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Tsosie, Rebecca A. “Indigenous people and environmental justice: the impact of climate change.” University of Colorado Law Review 78 (2007): 1625.