It’s Friday and I am on the train back from Montreal after spending a week in the IPY conference (International Polar Year) 2012. This conference hosted around 3000 participants from around the world, the majority being scientists from all disciplines, geologists, biologists, social scientists and everything in between. Corporate reps also attended, including people from Shell, Chevron, Royal Greenland and others. Government reps and scientists were also there, along with about 150 Aboriginal leaders from across the Arctic. Unfortunately only a handful of ENGO reps came, which were WWF, Oceans North and us.
It was an amazing opportunity to connect with people who to a large degree will be at the centre of our decision making regarding the future of the polar region, and also to listen to the scientific community discussing the facts about the Polar region. It was hard to choose which sessions to participate in, and I was always feeling like I could be missing out on other discussions. One of the most interesting topics for me was about integrating traditional knowledge with science. There was no question that traditional knowledge is solid and based on many years of observation and experience and as such can fill gaps and compliment science based knowledge. One of the Inuit elders, who used to hunt seals, shared a story about how he started to find shrimp instead of fish in the stomachs of seals. He sees this as a clear indication that fish stocks are in decline and people need to be made aware of this fact, especially people in his community. This is one example of very valuable information that would take the scientific community years to determine. It is also something that should result in immediate action, such as changing fish quotas.
Probably the biggest challenge we are faced with is the speed in which the Polar regions are changing as a result of climate change. There was overwhelming consensus among all conference participants that our current knowledge is far from being sufficient to understand what is going to happen in the Arctic. It was also agreed that almost every day, many are witnessing changes that they could not have predicted nor understand. The general sense was that humanity needs to take extra precautions in future Arctic developments because we do not know enough about what the impacts will be. Further, this rapid change exposes Aboriginal communities to a very challenging situation when their traditional ways of life become difficult to sustain. With fish stocks in decline, animals used for subsistence hunting altering their migration routes, with mining and oil companies accelerating this change by altering the environment even more it is the northern people who will feel these impacts first, and the most.
I was disappointed during a number of sessions where scientists were showing signs of despair, and of giving up. For example, during a session about oil and gas, the scientists agreed that additional emissions released from Arctic fossil fuels will be dangerous - but since people are still hungry for oil, we should at least extract it 'safely'. He remained inside the constraints of society; he did not consider that if we decide to put this oil off-limits, then we might be able to develop (hopefully green) alternatives. In my feedback during that session I pointed out the irony that the same industry who is largely responsible for the melting of the ice is now the first to plough forward to use this melting to extract more fossil fuels, that will eventually accelerate the rate of sea ice melting and will thus trigger an even bigger threat to humanity. I also asked the panel how the public and aboriginal people can be expected to trust an industry with such a terrible record of accidents, human rights abuses - or trust our governments, who are determined to serve the oil industry.
On another panel, an industry rep mentioned that the world population is already 7 billion, and that in order to feed these people, we need some healthy protein and should therefore open the Arctic for the fishing industry to supply this need. The flaw with this argument is the incorrect assumption that fish stocks are endless. He neglects to consider that if we continue with even further destruction of our oceans, the same 7 billion people will need to find other sources of protein sooner rather than later. On the same panel there was an interesting idea raised (which could be interesting as an oceans campaign concept) that fishing should continue in the Arctic only for its local communities and not sourced out to other populations.
While it was encouraging to see how many Aboriginal people are involved in Polar research, the tone of the majority was understandably bitter as they reiterated their social and environmental challenges and repeatedly demanded inclusion in any decisions about Polar policies and regulations. One Inuk leader was furious about the use of Polar bears for what he called 'western people's campaign purposes'. He pointed out that polar bears are an important source of food and clothing for the Inuit and was concerned that the continued portrayal of polar bears as cute and cuddly may force anti hunting policies. He encouraged people who think that polar bears are cute and cuddly to try and hug one...
In conclusion, the conference tagline was “from knowledge to action”. I can say there was tons of knowledge but very little on the action side of things. This indicates good timing for Greenpeace to own the “Action” part.