The UN’s climate chief Christiana Figueres announced last month that she would leave her position in July, after a six-year term and successfully shepherding 195 nations toward an agreement that would cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The target of a 1.5–2C (2.7–3.6F) degree limit on warming is cause for applause. But the work has just begun. Current targets are, by some estimates, almost 1C (1.8F) off the mark. Add to this election cycles, trembling economies and serious climate policy setbacks – and it’s clear that constant work will be required to keep governments focused on the target.
Many Arctic leaders spoke fiercely about their concerns and needs, at venues and events outside the main negotiations in Paris. These voices ranged from Saami leaders to indigenous Canadian youth – and they will be among those that will aim to keep governments on track.
Their messages can be summed up by the words of renowned Arctic leader Sheila Watt-Cloutier, “You save the Arctic, you save the planet.”
During the week I spent in Paris reporting on these events, several of their messages rose to the top and explained why, despite global woes, these Arctic leaders have much to say. Here are five reasons their voices are critical to the climate change conversation.
1. We are the barometer of the planet.
Climate change is already dramatically present. This is not just an Arctic problem. As the sea ice melts, less sunlight is reflected back into space and more heat is absorbed by the dark ocean, further increasing climate disruption around the globe.
An Arctic thaw will be accompanied by an increase in carbon emissions, as delicately stored methane is released from the permafrost. This will also affect the entire planet, leading to more warming, more glacial melt, more sea level rise and other changes. “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” was a phrase said by many, from Mark Brzezinski, the executive director of the U.S. government’s Arctic Executive Steering Committee, to Maatalii Okalik, president of the National Inuit Youth Council.
2. We have a human face.
Permafrost thaw and rising sea levels are displacing entire villages. The people living in the Arctic remain deeply connected to their environments, relying on the ocean in its various states for food and transport. But climate change has altered traditional hunting practices, by masking hunting trails and contributing to the decline of caribou herds, for example.
We can see, feel and taste climate change around us, said Cathy Towtongie, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the group that looks after Nunavut land claims, at the Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Arctic region day on December 8, 2015. She has heard numerous firsthand accounts of climate change from those who have smelled faraway forest fires and spotted birds they’ve never seen before.
For indigenous Arctic leaders, climate change is not an inconvenience. It is fundamentally altering the cultures and lives of human beings; it is a human rights issue.
But those who call for action on climate change must also be sensitive to how it is framed, Arctic leaders told me. “Please stop using polar bears as the icon of climate change,” Inuit Circumpolar Council leader Okalik Eegeesiak told a large audience at the Indigenous Peoples’ Forum. Using the polar bear as a symbol for climate change “does not help us address the very real human dimension,” she said.
The message to the world, as summarized by Towtongie: “This is not a textbook for us, this is our way of life.”
3. Despite all odds, we are still here.
Arctic leaders reminded COP21 delegates that they choose to live in extreme environmental conditions and they have adapted their behavior to survive, but the unprecedented pace of anthropogenic climate change has made adaptation more onerous.
Northern communities need assistance to adapt to climate change, said Peter Taptuna, the premier of Nunavut, at the Arctic region day. “The task is so great, and resources so few,” he said.
Some Canadian Arctic regions may well be considered underdeveloped by southern standards. The regions are remote and the costs of food and housing, coupled with a legacy of colonialism, contribute to disproportionate levels of poverty. Arctic peoples may live within wealthy nations, but it does not mean they have access to adequate adaptation assistance, said Taptuna.
Nor does it mean that they always benefit from development projects. Sweden’s Saami people have been battling plans by Britain’s Beowulf Mining to develop their reindeer herding territory. Saami leader Per Jonas Partapuoli, a board member of the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry, explained at the Global Landscapes Forum, a COP21 side event, that his family has been herding reindeer in the Kiruna municipality of Sweden since long before the country was formed. “It is where I find my safety, love, identity and – further – where my future will be,” Partapuoli said.
The message to the world: Arctic indigenous peoples thrive in some of the most extreme environmental conditions on the planet – and they wish to continue to do so – but without access to adaptation funding their children and grandchildren may not be able to.
4. We have so much to contribute.
Indigenous knowledge is thousands of years old. This does not mean indigenous peoples are living outmoded, static lives. Traditional knowledge will continue to adapt and evolve to ensure survival. “We are pragmatic, advanced and innovative,” said Aile Javo, president of the Saami Council.
National Inuit Youth Council leader Okalik explained at the Arctic Encounters event that when outsiders come to the north they go to the Inuit because the Inuit know the environment best and have solutions to the challenges of living in a cold and variable environment. Her message to the world: We know a thing or two about survival and adaptation solutions, please listen.
5. We are masters of cooperation.
No one can survive -50C (-58F) without the help of others. Hostile environments encourage the sharing of resources for food gathering and survival, said Okalik. “We believe in unity and solidarity,” she said.
Cooperation runs deep among Arctic populations. Towtongie reminded the audience at the Indigenous Peoples’ Forum that the Nunavut government manages a territory the size of Western Europe. Javo pointed to the unity of Arctic efforts, with both the Saami Council and the Inuit Circumpolar Council permanent participants in the Arctic Council. Arctic leaders asked the world to look to them as a model of nation-to-nation cooperation. A crisis in cooperation and dialogue is what’s stopping nations from preventing future climate change. The world can learn from our partnerships, Eegeesiak said.
An earlier version of this article appeared on Arctic Deeply.