Sheila Watt-Cloutier grew up in the tiny Inuit community of Kuujjauq on the southern shores of Ungava Bay in the frozen north of Canada. Until she was ten years old she travelled on nothing faster than a sledge pulled by dogs.  

Today Sheila Watt-Cloutier is the elected leader of the world's 150,000 Inuit people, who are scattered around the Arctic in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Chukotka, Russia. She played an important part, with UNEP, in getting the world's governments to agree to phase out a 'dirty dozen' polluting, persistent chemicals that were contaminating her people. She is also campaigning against global warming. This is an edited extract from testimony she gave to the US Congress in September 2004.

'We are at the very cusp of a defining moment in the history of the planet. The earth is melting and we must all come together to do the right thing to address climate change.

While global warming is affecting the entire planet, there is a scientific consensus that it is impacting the Arctic much faster. Our elders have been experiencing these changes since the mid-1970s. The Inuit connection to the environment remains strong, and many of us still depend upon the land and sea to sustain our families. Our elders and hunters have intimate knowledge of the land, sea and ice, and have observed disturbing changes to the Arctic climate, environment, and wildlife.

These include:

  1. melting permafrost
  2. longer sea-ice free seasons
  3. new species of birds and fish - barn owls, robins, pin-tailed ducks and salmon - invading the region
  4. invasions of mosquitoes and blackflies
  5. unpredictable sea-ice conditions
  6. glaciers melting, creating torrents in place of streams.

Our observations are confirmed by an official scientific assessment carried out by over 300 scientists and many indigenous peoples of the Arctic. This concludes that our ancient connection to our hunting culture may well disappear - within my grandson's lifetime.

Climate change is happening first and fastest in the Arctic. My homeland is the health barometer for the planet.

Looking at what is already happening in remote Inuit villages in Alaska - like Shismaref near its easternmost tip, which is literally being battered to the point of falling into the sea - reveals the future dangers for more populated areas such as Florida, Louisiana or California.

If we can reverse the emission of the pollution that causes climate change in time to save the Arctic from the most devastating impact of global warming, then we can spare untold suffering for hundreds of millions of people around the globe.

Global warming connects us all. Use what is happening in the Arctic - the Inuit Story - as a vehicle to re-connect us all, so that we may understand that the planet and its people are one. The Inuit hunter who falls through the depleting and unpredictable sea-ice is connected to the cars we drive, the industries we rely upon, and the disposable world we have become.

Climate change is a matter of the survival of humanity as whole. It is the most pressing global issue we face today. Protect the Arctic and we will save the planet.'

      photo: Willard/UNEP/Topham  
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