Ice is a way of life for the Inuit, the indigenous people of the Arctic. They travel by snowmobile and sustain themselves by hunting and fishing “country food”—caribou, geese and arctic char. But now the ice is melting. “We’ve been witnessing monumental changes,” says Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuit activist in the city of Iqaluit, the territorial capital of Nunavut, on the south coast of Baffin Island. “It’s very up close and personal for us.”
Warmer temperatures linked to greenhouse gases have dramatically altered Arctic coastlines. Glaciers are melting rapidly, turning streams into torrents that have washed away Inuit hunters trying to cross. Ice forms later in the fall and breaks up earlier in the spring, shortening the hunting season. Homes are crumbling into the sea.
“Last summer, we had such a strong melt in one of our communities, it created a break in the land right down to the bedrock,” Watt-Cloutier says. A bridge collapse divided a community in two: on one side, the water filtration plant; on the other, people with no access to clean water. “It was a crisis,” she says. “We’ve contributed the least to global warming, but we suffer the most negative consequences.”
As a child, Watt-Cloutier planned to study medicine. Instead, she married young and started a family. She went to work in the school system as a guidance counselor. After a divorce in the early nineties she ran for office, serving as corporate secretary for the Makivik Corporation, a regional Canadian Inuit land-claim organization. “I thought a power base would help me make more effective changes,” she says. Asked to head up the Canadian branch of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) assembly in 1995, she initially resisted. “I was fairly green and already had my hands full,” she says. “They said, ‘We always get the busiest person. You can do it.’ ”
She dove in, representing her people on the issue of toxins in the Arctic that had originated in industrialized countries farther south. “It was really alarming,” she says. Inuit mothers were afraid to nurse their children because DDT, PCBs, dioxins and worse had been found in their breast milk. “Oh my goodness, we were being poisoned from afar,” Watt-Cloutier recalls.
In 2001, she was instrumental in the push to create the landmark Stockholm Convention, an international treaty aimed at eliminating the manufacture (or reducing the use) of a dozen persistent organic pollutants. In 2002, she be-came the ICC’s international chair, representing about 155,000 Inuit from the U.S., Canada, Russia and Greenland.
By then it was clear that climate change was a looming threat to her people’s way of life, but Watt-Cloutier wondered how she could make the world care: “Everyone was focusing on the science and the economics of global warming. How could we bring a heartbeat to this issue?”
She realized that citizens of the country emit-ting the most greenhouse gases at the time—the United States—had heard almost nothing about how warming was affecting the people of the Arctic, where temperatures were rising faster than anywhere else. “We are the early-warning system for the rest of the world,” Watt-Cloutier says. Her first step: Deliver cautionary tales to Americans’ doorsteps.
And so she collected the heartbreaking stories of Inuit hunters and elders, and bore witness to their suffering at countless speaking engagements, including her 2004 testimony before a Senate commerce committee hearing about the impact of climate change. In addition, she and 62 fellow Inuits filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, claiming that the U.S. had violated the human rights of the Inuit people, who were being deprived of their homes and their way of life because of the effects of unchecked emissions.
“It wasn’t aggressive or angry,” she says. “It was to educate and encourage the U.S. to come on our side and to join nations to combat climate change.