Native peoples panel warns of impacts from climate change
September 25, 2005
By ED BARNA Correspondent
MIDDLEBURYŚ If the severe storm seasons generated by global warming sent a
Katrina or Rita to the wrong place in the Pacific Ocean, an entire nation would
That was the message of Enele Sopoaga, ambassador to the United Nations from
Tuvalu, to a Middlebury College conference on how the present "Age of Climate
Crisis" is affecting indigenous cultures. Speaking to about 150 people at the
college's science center Friday, along with representatives of two Arctic Circle
native peoples, he warned that global overheating and rising ocean levels are
slowly but steadily doing what a major typhoon would do quickly.
"The impacts are already here, and are happening to our islands," Sopoaga said.
And Tuvalu is just one of 43 members of the Alliance of Small Island States,
many of whom have similar fears, he said.
On Tuvalu's nine islands, about 10,000 people are living no more than 10 feet
above sea level, Sopoaga said, so fiercer tides and storm surges are already a
problem. Looking at pictures of Katrina's damage, "if that ever happened to
Tuvalu, my country would be disappeared, totally, from the face of the planet,"
Yet the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned
that in 50 to 100 years, melting Arctic ice could raise ocean levels above the
highest points on Tuvalu, he said. "The situation is not exaggerated at all.
It's getting very, very serious."
In 2000, Tuvalu appealed to Australia and New Zealand to accept its people as
refugees in an emergency. In 2002, Tuvalu announced it would sue the United
States, which had pulled out of the Kyoto Protocols on carbon dioxide
reductions, pointing to studies like that of the National Environmental Trust
that said 288 million Americans were producing greenhouse gas emissions
equivalent to those of 2.6 billion people in 151 poorer countries.
It's also bad up by the Arctic Circle in Fort Yukon, Alaska, said Craig Fleener,
a wildlife biologist with the Council of Athabascan Tribal Groups. Their way of
getting food, their culture, their spiritual life, all depend on hunting and
gathering at the right times and places in nature, he said, but the warming is
destroying all those traditions.
On the coast, the ice pack has loosened, so that storm waves wash away the
shoreline, Fleener said. Several villages have been evacuated already, because
they were about to crumble into the sea.
In the last year, there were only two inches of rain, he said. The Yukon River
that acts as the local highway has been so low that people have not been able to
travel by boat, keeping them away from hunting grounds, he said.
Last year, wildfires destroyed six million acres, and this year, for the first
time, it looks like there will be two bad fire years in a row, he said. One fire
in his Yukon River area, of two million acres, "was the largest fire in recorded
When the tundra thaws, lakes disappear, as their water is drawn down into the
ground, Fleener said. "When the lakes are dry, there are few places for wildlife
to go. That's a tremendous problem," he said.
It is also a problem, in trying to adapt, that governmental hunting regulations
and private land ownership restrictions keep them from going where they need to,
Fleener said. "You have to have some faith in native control and authority and
our traditional rights," he said.
But even when hunters can travel farther from home, increasingly it is dangerous
for them to do so because of the weak ice and soft ground, he said.
Some may think warmer winters are better, but "we (native Alaskans) have a need
to be cold. We have a right to be cold," Fleener said.
John Mameamskum, director-general of the Naskapi nation, had similar concerns
about his region about 1,000 miles northeast of Montreal. "The impacts of
climate change are of paramount importance to us, and to all our neighbors
across the North," he said.
Forty years ago, there were 20-foot snowdrifts; now for the first time they have
seen thunderstorms in midwinter, Mameamskum said. What Katrina was to the United
States, the great ice storm of 1989 was to Quebec, he said: a disaster that
Hydro-Quebec, whose power lines failed, assured everyone had only a tiny chance
of ever happening.
Their way of life, still strongly traditional with Nescapi still spoken, depends
heavily on the caribou, Mameamskum said. About 750,000 of them live in the
region, he said.
Six years ago, when the caribou left the area in search of food, it took five
and a half hours for part of the herd to pass through Schefferville, he said.
Even the schools closed, so the children could watch.
Now the herd no longer comes close during its spring and fall migrations, he
said. "We have to travel significantly farther to harvest," he said, and as a
study he handed out afterward showed, the herd's habitat and health have become
At least Canada has signed the Kyoto treaty, which will bring carbon dioxide
levels 6 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, he said. "It's an important step in
the right direction," he said.
Fleener was less optimistic about Alaska, which he said has a pioneer attitude
toward development and a conservative congressional delegation. High oil prices
will probably mean drilling not only in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge but also in
many other places, he said.
All three agreed that industrialized nations' ideas about religion are part of
the problem. For native peoples living on, in and of the land, there is no
separation of church and state, and there are no churches to go to on Sunday
"and then do whatever it is you do," as Fleener put it.
A fourth panelist, with Penobscot roots, was Dartmouth professor of Native
American and environmental studies Darren Ronco. "How we deal with the first
round of climate change impacts will influence how we deal with human rights
here and around the world," he said.
"This is a global crisis. We need a global response," Sopoaga said. "The
consequences we are suffering will be felt by all, if nothing is done urgently."