The consequences of global warming — melting ice caps, rising seas and warmer temperatures — will eventually affect people all over the world, but in the Arctic, Inuit people are already bearing the brunt of the change. In Nunavut, the northernmost region of Canada, Inuit leader Sheila Watt-Cloutier, 53, has dedicated her career to advocating for her people — and these days, that means fighting hard to make sure climate change doesn’t destroy their ancient way of life.

Watt-Cloutier began lobbying for environmental justice in the ’90s as a member of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, a non-governmental Inuit rights group. In 2004, as chair of the group, she helped pass the Stockholm Convention, a United Nations treaty aimed at eliminating persistent organic pollutants that have accumulated in food sources—such as whale blubber—that are staples of the Inuit diet. But in the past several years, as northern temperatures have continued to rise, Watt-Cloutier has shifted her attention to climate change. In 2005, with the support of hunters and elders from her community, she submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in hopes that the group would urge the United States to curb its carbon emissions; in the age of global warming, says Watt-Cloutier, those emissions amount to a human rights violation against the Inuit. The petition was rejected, but the world took notice, and last February she was nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Plenty caught up with Watt-Cloutier on a couple of occasions to ask about her people, her work, and her nomination.

How is global warming affecting the Inuit people?

The ice is forming much later in the fall, and it’s breaking up much earlier in the spring. The conditions of the ice and snow have changed so much and so dramatically that when the ice forms, it is very difficult to read in terms of safety. We have glaciers that are melting very quickly. Streams that used to be very safe for our hunters to cross have now become torrential rivers. There are even a couple of communities that have to be relocated since they’re literally falling into the sea.

Have these developments changed how the Inuit live? 

Yes. When the ice starts to break up too quickly in the springtime and people are still hunting and fishing, they need to take much longer routes. This costs more for people because they have to bring more supplies and more fuel to get to the same point than they used to.

How do you convey the idea that global warming is not just an Inuit problem, but a global one? 

Often I tell people that as the Arctic is melting; other places, like the small island developing states, are sinking because of sea level rise. If you want to understand the health of our planet, come north to take its pulse. What is happening in the Arctic is happening first and fastest, but it is going to happen everywhere else. It’s all very connected.

Do you think that the global community is aware of the degree that climate change is affecting the Inuit?  

There’s a growing awareness. I really saw the shift happen when we started to make the connection between this issue and human rights. It raised awareness that climate change was not just about technology or politics. It wasn’t just about carbon sinks and emissions trading and greenhouse gases. There really are people far away from the source of these pollutants and greenhouse gases whose lives are being disproportionately impacted.

Why did you decide to submit a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights?

I didn’t want to go in the direction of lawsuits, which would cost us enormous amounts of money. It would also discredit our work since lots of people would say, ‘Oh, they just want money. They just want compensation.’ It would weaken our cause. We wove in all of the changes that were happening up here in terms of our cultural way of life, our right to health, our right to culture, our right to safety.

Were the Inuit people eager to sign the petition?

Yes. Some people were cautious because of fear of political backlash, but not moving ahead in this strong, bold way would have been even worse because the future holds such stark realities for us. The whole idea behind the petition is that it wasn’t an act of anger or aggression or confrontation. It was a gift, an act of generosity from an ancient culture to a society that has largely lost its connection to the rhythms and cycles of nature. It was not a way to strike out, but it was a way to reach out. This was a way to pressure the U.S. to come back as a leader.

What do you see as your biggest challenge moving forward?

I think the biggest challenge is to really get people to genuinely see climate change as a real, immediate, and urgent issue that needs to be addressed and to pull away from all of this politicizing of the issue. I would think that this is the biggest challenge at the political level. I think the citizens themselves, even within my country and the U.S., seem to be moving ahead of their own governments, which is a great sign. But at the same time we’re bound by political structures and a culture of politics.

How long do you expect to fight for this cause?

As long as it takes. This is a life passion. I’m hoping that the global community will get the message very soon and start to really work together. I’m hoping that there will be a time when one doesn’t have to be standing on the rooftop here in the Arctic trying to tell that story to a deaf audience. The interest that seems to be building up now is only going to grow.

Story by Susan Cosier. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007. The story was added to in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2007.

Northern exposure
Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Inuit leader Sheila Watt-Cloutier speaks for the first victims of global warming.