Environment & Poverty Times
Snowmobile crossing over melting sea ice. Uummannaq Greenland, May 2009. Lawrence Hislop.
Global warming – first to face the changes By Justin Nobel and John Crump
From the outside, the F Street offices of the Organization of American States resembles many other buildings in Washington, D.C. However, what was happening inside on that particular day was unique: a meeting was taking place involving a member of parliament from the island nation of Niue, a scientist from the Siberian state of Sakha and a deputy mayor from an Inuit community on the cusp of the North American continent. One person spent her childhood travelling by dogsled and two years ago was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize while another, a professor from Barbados, actually won it. The Micronesians sent a delegate, as did the Cook Islanders, the indigenous Athabaskans from the Arctic, and the Seychellois.
They were all in Washington for one reason: because the Arctic and Small Island Develop- ing States (SIDS) are barometers of global climate change. Through an alliance called Many Strong Voices (MSV) people in the SIDS are working together to make sure their voices are heard. The MSV programme is coordinated by UNEP/GRID-Arendal and recognizes that there are common interests between these two groups. Arctic peoples feel climate change faster and more drastically than people in most other parts of the world. People who live on small islands around the world are threatened by rising global sea levels and other climate change effects. Both groups are in communities relatively isolated from the rest of the world, and have limited resources to deal with change.
MSV has three main areas of work:
First, it tries to educate decision-makers so that those who make climate change policy, internationally and within the regions, understand the unique challenges faced by people in the Arctic and SIDS.
Second, through media interviews, public lectures, activities at the UN Framework Con- vention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) nego-
tiating sessions and other venues, MSV brings the stories of how people are responding to the challenges of climate change to the rest of the world. A cornerstone of this effort is a project called Portraits of Resilience – a photography project where young people write essays and take photos of their world in a way that illus- trates the human face of climate change.
Third, to support this work, MSV is conduct- ing an assessment of the vulnerability and adaptive capacity in the regions. It is also working on a project to assess the impacts climate change will have on food security in the Arctic.
MSV helps to collaboratively devise solutions to the challenges of climate change and to raise the voices of peoples in these regions so they may be heard in international forums on climate change adaptation and mitiga- tion. The programme involves policy-mak- ers, indigenous peoples, NGOs, community organizations and researchers.
The partners in MSV maintain that:
A A global agreement is required that keeps global average temperature increases
as far below two degrees Celsius as possible by ensuring large cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Their argument is based on the IPCC IV report that clearly indicates that even if temperatures are kept below this level, vulnerable regions and countries, including the Arctic and Small Island Devel- oping States, will be severely affected by the inevitable impacts of climate change.
A Climate change policy should learn from the experiences of indigenous peoples
and islanders concerning adaptation and assist these communities in building upon their traditional knowledge in this area.
A The world’s richest countries must help the vulnerable to adapt to climate change by
providing adequate financial and technical assistance. For the Small Island Developing States and other particularly vulnerable de-
veloping countries, this means living up to existing adaptation funding commitments. Arctic peoples need a commitment from their own countries to fund local adaptation efforts in the Arctic regions.
MSV 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. The places its constituents call home are as diverse as the planet has to offer, but as the planet warms they face the same looming catastrophe.
“We want to tell the world that the Inuit hunter falling through the ice and the Pa- cific Islander fishing on rising seas are con- nected,” said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, former leader of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) and a nominee for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.
A few years ago, Watt-Cloutier gained world- wide recognition by indicting the United States in front of the Inter-American Com- mission on Human Rights for producing the greenhouse gas emissions that were warming her Arctic homeland at rates twice as fast as elsewhere on the planet. The warming hasn’t stopped and neither has Watt-Cloutier.
“This is the start of the dying of a civiliza- tion,” warned Dr Rolph Payet, an economic adviser to the president of the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean just north of Madagascar.
Some islands in his homeland are composed of granite with spires that rise into the clouds while others rest on a porous coral platform barely visible above the ever-lapping waves. Should sea level rise just several feet, as predicted by the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, of which Payet was a lead author, these islands 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.
Patricia Cochran, an Inupiat Eskimo born and raised in Alaska and former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, presented a harrowing slideshow of her homeland.
In Shishmaref, homes hug cliffs that are crumbling – because of melting permafrost – into seas now more likely to be beset by storms as rising temperatures reduce sea ice. The media has publicized this town’s prob- lems, “but there are half a dozen other vil- lages just like Shishmaref,” noted Cochran.
Ice that hunters have relied on for centuries is melting earlier in the spring and shifting in ways locals don’t understand. Cochran said that last year a convoy of more than 200 snowmobiles had to be rescued by helicopter after sea ice unexpectedly broke up.
Another effect of the changing ice conditions has been deaths of hunters whose machines have gone through the ice on what used to be reliable transportation routes. “There is not one of us without a friend who has taken their snow machine out and not come back home again,” she said. Other problems include wildfires and unprecedented heat waves.
“We will not assume the role of powerless victims,” said Cochran. “We will do every- thing we can to ensure our people who have been here for centuries will be here for centuries more.”
The near-term goal of MSV is to build support for the greatest emissions reductions possible at the UN Climate Conference in Copenha- gen this December. It is doing this by working with other partners in the negotiations now underway to insert wording in the text of the post-Kyoto climate change agreement. MSV partners are also working in other venues, such as the United Nations General Assem- bly, to get their message out.
About the authors: Justin Nobel is a science writ- er and photographer based in New York City. His website is www.justinnobel.com
. John Crump is Acting Polar Manager of UNEP/GRID-Arendal.
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