'Start of dying of a 'c;ivilization;'
Indigenous communities unite against climate change
WASHINGTON – What do Nunavut, Niue and Sahka have in common?
Nunavut, the coral island in the South Pacific and the Siberian state are all populated by indigenous communities that are being adversely affected by climate change.
And two weeks ago officials and scientists from these disparate lands met in Washington D.C. to discuss how to bring attention to their common climate crises.
Their group, Many Strong Voices, unites indigenous peoples from the Arctic with those from the tiny coral isles sprinkled throughout the globe's oceans, known in the lingo of climate change policy as "small island developing states."
Many Strong Voices was spawned on the heels of a 2005 United Nations climate policy meeting in Montreal and met for the first time in Belize two years later.
Delegates at this month's conference included Nunavummiut along with Micronesians, Cook Islanders, Athabaskans, Barbadians and Seychellans.
"We want to tell the world that the Inuit hunter falling through the ice and the Pacific Islander fishing on rising seas are connected," said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, former president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council and a nominee for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.
Four years ago, Watt-Cloutier gained worldwide recognition by indicting the United States in front of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for producing most of the greenhouse gas emissions that were warming the Arctic at rates twice as fast as elsewhere on the planet.
"This is the start of the dying of a civilization," warned Dr. Rolph Payet, a lead author of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and an economic advisor to the president of the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean just north of Madagascar.
If the sea level rises just several feet, as the IPCC predicts, much of Payet's homeland will be inundated.
"Who will be prepared to chuck away a 1,000 year-old album with the history of all their ancestors overnight?" Payet asked during one session.
The near-term goal of Many Small Voices is to gain support for the greatest emissions reductions possible at the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen this December.
But for Alaska, even a miracle in Copenhagen can't reverse damage already done.
Patricia Cochran, an Alaskan Inupiat and current chair of the ICC, presented a harrowing slideshow of her homeland.
In Shishmaref, homes hug cliffs that are crumbling because of melting permafrost into seas more likely to be beset by storms as rising temperatures reduce sea ice.
The media has publicized this town's problems, but there are half a dozen other villages just like Shishmaref, noted Cochran.
Ice that hunters have relied on for centuries is also melting earlier and shifting. Last year a convoy of more than 200 snowmobiles had to be rescued by helicopter after sea ice unexpectedly broke up, said Cochran.
"There is not one of us without a friend who has taken their snow machine out and not come back home again," she said. "That's what we face every day. These, in my opinion, are climate related incidents."
Other incidents include wildfires and scorching heat waves.
"We will not assume the role of powerless victims," said Cochran. "We will do everything we can to ensure our people who have been here for centuries will be here for centuries more."
Nick Illauq, deputy mayor of Clyde River, voiced a different concern.
"Everyone is rushing to the Arctic to get our resources," said Illauq. "To me, that's my biggest fear. We are very poor, we ask for money and we don't get it. We know we are destroying [the earth] and yet we rush to find resources."
After a closing meal the final evening of the conference, Illauq spoke with Billy Talagi, an assistant minister from the tiny South Pacific island nation of Niue.
"I want to have the next Many Small Voices conference in my town," said Illauq.
"That would be good," said Talagi, "because people could actually see, see with their naked eyes."