Arctic delegation heads to Paris climate talks

A delegation of indigenous leaders from the world's Arctic countries head to Paris this week for the United Nations conference on climate change.

They'll join hundreds of world leaders, scientists, and stakeholders at the 21st Conference of Parties, also known by its abbreviation, COP21, and spend the better part of two weeks talking about the effects of climate change on the world and its inhabitants.

The goal of both the Inuit Circumpolar Council's delegates and those from the Saami Council is to highlight the particular consequences of a warming climate for the polar regions.

"The health and well-being of Inuit have always been tied to the environment," said Inuit Circumpolar Council Chair Okalik Eegeesiak, of Canada, in a release. "Inuit are deeply concerned about the impacts of climate change on their cultural, social, and economic health."

Council representatives come from three distinct Inuit regions: Canada, the United States, and Greenland.

They include Eegeesiak, Canada's Maatali Okalik, president of the National Inuit Youth Council, and Cathy Towtongie, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., Greenland's Lene Kielsen Holm and Aili Liimakka Laue, executive board member of the council, and Kotzebue's Reggie Joule, former mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough.

The Chukotka region of Russia is also home to a substantial Inuit population, though it won't be directly represented at these talks.

The Saami Council comprises indigenous representatives from Finland, Russia, Norway and Sweden.

Both the Saami and Inuit delegations have observer status at the conference, meaning they will not be voting parties, but instead will work to stress the rights and needs of the communities they represent.

Together, they will be the face of the Arctic's Native populations at the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change. The forum is a caucus of indigenous leaders from Asia, Africa, the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, Russia and Eastern Europe, North America, and the Arctic, ancillary to the main climate talks.

It's important that the Arctic be specifically and carefully represented, said Eegeesiak, as its sensitive ecosystem is somewhat of a canary in the coal mine for global change.

"Inuit will be in Paris to remind the world that the Arctic is the barometer of the health of the planet," said Eegeesiak.

Recent scientific research into climate-related changes in ocean chemistry, like acidification and deoxygenation, show those changes are coming faster and in more drastic forms in the northern regions than anywhere else on the planet.

With that come sometimes abrupt changes to traditional ways of life.

"Inuit are dependent on the land and sea. As climate change impacts the Arctic, Inuit rights to hunt and pursue our culture are impacted," said Eegeesiak. "Any and all measures for mitigation and adaptation must correspond to acknowledge, recognize and implement human rights in national and international agreements."

The council put forth a position paper in advance of the conference, outlining beliefs and goals they hoped to communicate to other participants.

In it, the council states that Arctic communities are witnessing firsthand what climate change has the potential to do to the people living in some of the harshest, yet most sensitive, environments on the planet. Concerns for sea ice, permafrost, and the living conditions of subsistence animals are top priorities.

It states: "The impacts of shoreline erosion, flooding, salt water intrusion of freshwater supplies and the resulting damage to infrastructure and impacts on community health are observed in coastal communities and cities globally."

Therefore, the council is calling for collective and immediate action by global communities to create a sustainable long-term plan to mitigate the affects of climate change in the coming years.

In its list of requests, the council calls on the global community to "recognize the role of the Arctic in sustaining global climate systems," integrate indigenous knowledge into the decision-making process, encourage Inuit participation in international discussions, support local communities' adaptation through sustainable technology, "recognize the fundamental right of Inuit to a safe and healthy environment," use the Arctic Council as a model for other regions, and recognize short-term climate change drivers, like methane and black carbon, and develop plans to deal with them.

Above all, the delegation hopes to stress just how important it is for indigenous communities with the knowledge they bear to have a seat at the table when it comes to deciding the future of the planet and its ecosystem.

The conference began Nov. 30 and will continue through Dec. 11.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.