Inuit group, citing dramatic effects in the Arctic, calls for bigger role in international climate action

By Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon - December 1, 2023
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Houses, seen on Aug. 2, 2022, teeter on the edge of an Utqiagvik bluff that is being rapidly eroded by permafrost thaw. The house on the right has been abandoned. At the base of the bluff are SuperSacks filled with sand, placed there as part of the effort to hold back ocean waves and slow down erosion. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Houses, seen on Aug. 2, 2022, teeter on the edge of an Utqiagvik bluff that is being rapidly eroded by permafrost thaw. The house on the right has been abandoned. At the base of the bluff are SuperSacks filled with sand, placed there as part of the effort to hold back ocean waves and slow down erosion (Photo: Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

The Inuit people of the Arctic, facing some of the most dramatic effects of climate change, are seeking a bigger voice in any international action taken to address it.

In a position paper issued just before the start of a major international climate change conference, the Inuit Circumpolar Council listed five major recommendations for ways that the “stark warnings” that the Indigenous people of the Arctic have been issuing for decades can be addressed. The council includes Inupiat and Yup’ik representatives.

“For decades, we have witnessed the direct impacts of a changing climate in our homeland and have consistently advocated for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to prevent these changes from becoming a global norm,” said the position paper, released Monday in advance of the 28th Conference of Parties for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP 28. The conference got underway this week in Dubai.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council includes representatives in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia. It is one of the six international Indigenous organizations that have decision-making power at the eight-nation Arctic Council. The Inuit Circumpolar Council has a COP 28 delegation, to include Alaska members.

One key issue highlighted in the position paper is the Loss and Damage Fund that was created at last year’s COP 27 held in Egypt. As it is structured now, the fund is focused on helping poorer nations in the global south address the impacts of climate change.

That leaves a big gap, said Inuit Circumpolar Chair Sara Olsvig of Greenland.

Ice-rich permafrost is exposed by coastal erosion along the Beaufort Sea in Arctic Alaska. The site is in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, part of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. (Photo by Brandt Meixell/U.S. Geological Survey)
Ice-rich permafrost is exposed by coastal erosion along the Beaufort Sea in Arctic Alaska. The site is in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, part of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (Photo: Brandt Meixell/U.S. Geological Survey)

“This means that as it is structured now, Inuit and other Arctic Indigenous Peoples will not have access to the fund, although we are among those most impacted by climate change,” Olsvig said by email. Given the rapid rate of Arctic warming and associated effects, “the inclusion of Inuit in any policy and decision-making is of great importance,” she said.

She noted that the area within the planet’s Arctic Circle has warmed about four times as fast as the global average, according to recent measurements. In Alaska, which has warmed two to three times as fast as the U.S. average, warming has caused erosion rates of about 1.4 meters (4.6 feet) a year along the northern coast, with some sections eroding as much as 20 meters (66 feet) a year, Olsvig said.

In Alaska, numerous coastal villages are facing expensive damages from coastal erosion, flooding, ground sinking and other effects of sea-ice loss, permafrost thaw and extreme weather.

An early result from COP 28 was an agreement on money flowing into the Loss and Damage Fund. Nations have pledged a combined $400 million, including $100 million each from the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Germany, according to the U.N.

For the Inuit Circumpolar Council, another priority is achieving a change in the way decisions are made and research is conducted in the Arctic. The organization’s position paper calls for work to be guided by a set of protocols for ethical engagement that the Inuit Circumpolar Council published last year.

That includes respect for and use of Indigenous knowledge, the position paper says.

“Indigenous Knowledge is a systematic way of thinking that goes across biological, physical, cultural, and spiritual systems, and it provides insights different from conventional scientific knowledge regimes. Therefore, ICC is continuously advocating for the full and equal inclusion of Indigenous Knowledge in any development or decision-making related to the Arctic and Inuit homelands and lives,” Olsvig said by email.

There are past examples in which Indigenous knowledge has been successfully incorporated into international agreements and policy decisions, Olsvig said. Some are sweeping agreements, like the 2015 Paris Agreement, which includes a program for Indigenous information exchanges. Some are more regionally focused, like the Central Arctic Ocean fisheries agreement, “where Indigenous Knowledge is an integral part of the scientific regime, and where Inuit from Alaska, Canada and Greenland also participate,” Olsvig said. That agreement, which came into effect in 2021, puts a moratorium on any commercial fishing in the international waters of the Arctic Ocean.


Since relocating to Alaska in 1978 to write for the Anchorage Times, Yereth Rosen has reported about the state for Reuters, the Alaska Dispatch News, Arctic Today and other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son’s hockey games.

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