At the Arctic frontlines of climate change, politics not seen as answer
Global warming has been a top issue for much of Canada’s federal election campaign, which ends Tuesday when Canadians will pick a party to form a new government. First affected by changes in the environment are Canadians who live on the northern fringes of the country. Scientists say temperatures are rising much faster in the Arctic than elsewhere.
To gauge how the debate on the environment is playing in Canada’s Great North, Grist spoke by telephone with Donald Mearns in Pangnirtung, on Baffin Island, in the territory of Nunavut. A town of 1,350 people located 30 miles from the Arctic Circle, Pangnirtung is a cluster of wooden homes perched at the rocky union of treeless mountains, a river, and the dramatic Pangnirtung Fjord leading to Cumberland Sound.
Supplies for the town must be flown in or brought by barge in the summer. But much of the food comes from subsistence-hunting of seals and game, fishing, and gathering berries. The people of Pangnirtung have seen unusual spells of warm weather in recent years that bring swift changes in the Arctic landscape on which they depend. Mearns, 48, has lived there for most of the last 30 years.
Let’s set the scene a little bit. What’s the weather today in Pangnirtung?
Donald Mearns: It’s fairly cool. We probably started off at about zero [C] this morning. It would be about plus five [41 degrees F] at the moment.
That’s fairly balmy for you.
Yep. I’m sitting in my shorts right now.
The fjord is not frozen yet?
It’s starting to get slushy. There was even a skin of ice enough that young seals were able to get up on the ice surface out in the fjord. My wife saw a chap getting out there to go hunt the seals, but it was pretty slow going in a boat.
In the meantime, what are hunters doing?
The harp seals are on the go at the moment, getting together and heading south. There’s been a lot of ducks. And a lot of guys are out looking for caribou. My brother-in-law, Noah Metuq, spent a week out looking for caribou and didn’t get any. But other guys have had tremendous success.
So what’s the talk of Pangnirtung these days?
The big excitement has been the new bridge. This spring, we lost the bridge. We had a big melt and it gouged out the river. Basically overnight, the river dropped 15 or 20 feet in depth. The water went down under the permafrost, and there was considerable amount of damage done.
This is very unusual?
This is probably a one-in-10,000-year event.
What caused it?
We had very high temperatures and very heavy rain at the same time. Along with the rain, there was amazing melt. It caused a huge amount of water to come down the river. Because of the constriction of the bridge, the water built up across the road. I have never seen it do that before. Then it just washed everything out.
You were watching this?
Yep. Nobody watched a TV for three weeks. Everybody was down at the river every night to see what was going to happen next. Every single night there was a new event. There was a new crack opening, stuff collapsing. It was amazing to see, just fascinating. It looked like an earthquake. There were a lot of elders down there, and they were really upset. There is a lot of history in pieces of the river for them. They would clean sealskins there and polar bear skins, and they would remember people being at those places, and those places don’t exist anymore. There were elders in tears.
You’ve had some pretty strange weather in Pangnirtung in the past few years. Is this the capstone of that?
This has been the pinnacle of the bizarre weather. We have had some bizarre and huge storms.
Does this have folks in town talking more about global warming?
There is certainly a very strong awareness of climate change. A lot of people say it’s part of a cycle; they are not really very sure. They are noticing differences with animals, noticing the differences in ice conditions, noticing differences in land conditions.
There’s been talk about climate change in the election campaign in Canada. Have folks in town paid attention to the campaign?
People sort of get on with their lives here. More on people’s minds is the Nunavut election, rather than the general election. But certainly in Iqaluit [the capital of Nunavut, 180 miles south of Pangnirtung], the buzz has been about the general election. All three main candidates have made their way to Iqaluit. That has excited people there. There have been fairly big do’s where they have had music. [New Democratic Party candidate] Jack Layton was dancing with the local folks, and some of the musicians from Pangnirtung went down to the NDP event. We’ve also seen [Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader] Stephen Harper in Iqaluit; [Liberal Party candidate] Stéphane Dion was there last week. This is the first time we have seen these politicians up here on the campaign trail. It makes people think that Nunavut is coming of age.
When they have come up, have they talked about how you are on the front line of climate change?
That’s certainly been part of the discussion.
When the hunters are talking about the changes they see that may be related to climate change, do they have any feeling that government can do anything about it?
People are looking at the fact that they are going to need to adapt to deal with the changes that are coming with the climate change. It’s more that, than the feeling that the government can actually make a change to it. Because to be honest, government can’t, overnight. There are going to be a lot of things that happen between now and the next 100 years. We can maybe slow things down, but we are not going to stop it.
So they aren’t paying a whole lot of attention to the campaign?
They are certainly watching it. But, at the moment, there is so much in the news about the American presidential campaign. At coffee today we were talking about things, and the conversations started off with the [U.S.] presidential candidates. Then we moved on the Canadian election and the Nunuavut election as well. There are three sets of elections; it’s election overkill.
At coffee, do you get any sense there is a feeling for one or the other of the Canadian candidates?
People keep their cards pretty close to their chest. I wouldn’t say anyone was saying they were going one way or another.
The economy has overshadowed both the American and the Canadian elections, and overshadowed a lot of the conversation about the environment in the Canadian election. How does concern about the economy play out in Pangnirtung?
For many Inuit, they live from day to day. It’s tough on people here. There are extended families, so money tends to go to the family rather to investments. For many people, they don’t have that option. Nunavut depends on federal money, so if it affects Canada as a whole it eventually will affect Nunavut.
Recent Grist.org coverage of Canada’s national election:
- Shifting Away From the ‘Green Shift’ (22 Sep 2008)
- Committed environmentalist Stéphane Dion faces uphill fight in Canadian election (7 Oct 2008)