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In the rapidly warming Arctic, Inuit homes are about to fall into the ocean as coastlines quickly deteriorate. Sea ice melting is giving way to new powerful cyclones. And as the permafrost thaws, a staggering amount of methane is released, pushing the planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions in the Earth’s atmosphere to even more dangerous levels.

As the Arctic suffers from these profound changes, fossil fuel companies are increasingly eyeing it for new oil and gas extraction, while the tourism industry sees fresh opportunities for business, too.

For Inuit, whose cultures are based on an intimate relationship with the environment, these physical changes give way to cultural transformation. In an interview with Canada’s National Observer, Inuit Circumpolar Council president Lisa Koperqualuk described the “enormous” change unfolding right now.

Near Pond Inlet in Nunavut, the Mary River mine operated by Baffinland, crushes and screens iron ore on site and transports it by ship to points in Europe and Asia. The underwater noise from these ships is a “form of pollution” that impacts narwhal territory, Koperqualuk said

Already, she said, harvesters are noticing declining narwhal populations as many move to other areas to escape the noise. This is affecting how harvesters hunt the animal, forcing them to travel longer distances, and impacting how cultural harvesting knowledge is passed down through generations, Koperqualuk explained.

“It could very well lead to changing language,” she said. If tourism and resource extraction industries further pounce on the Arctic, the impact on marine life will only get worse.

Inuit depend on marine animals for healthy foods and maintaining culture and language, she said. As climate change and pollution affect the availability of these animals, the result is a greater dependence on imported food that sells at grossly inflated prices, perpetuating poverty levels unmatched anywhere else in the country.

These are concrete examples of what’s called “loss and damage” in the jargon of international climate change negotiations. In 2022, countries agreed to negotiate a fund that would compensate poor countries for the losses and damages experienced within their borders, and at last year’s UN climate talks in Dubai, agreed to “operationalize” that fund.

Loss and damage refers to economic and non-economic harms caused by climate change. If a drought causes crop failure, the value of the lost crops is to be compensated. If a hurricane rips across an island destroying infrastructure, that's damage to be compensated. Non-economic loss and damages, like the harmful impacts on culture, are harder to quantify but are also considered under the umbrella of loss and damage.

The issue cuts to the core of international climate finance debates and reveals a significant crack in the multilateral negotiations that allows Inuit, and other Indigenous Peoples, to slip through. #Climate #Politics #ClimateFinance #LossAndDamage

There is no dispute the overheating climate is already causing loss and damage in the Arctic, but because Inuit in Canada technically live in a rich, developed country, they are ineligible to tap the funds to compensate them.

The decision to house the fund on an interim basis at the World Bank led to a flood of cash — at least US$700 million collectively committed by several countries, including Canada. However, the decision runs roughshod over Indigenous and human rights, argues Koperqualuk in an interview with Canada’s National Observer in Dubai where the UN conference was held.

That decision is “neglecting our right to participate at the table,” she said. “The way it's being set up right now with the World Bank, it's very bureaucratic. It's not inclusive of Indigenous Peoples, it's not inclusive of Inuit, and it's very much based on that dichotomy of developed and developing states, which is a false dichotomy.

“It is actually an infringement of our rights as self-determining peoples,” she added.

The issue Koperqualuk describes cuts to the core of international climate finance debates and reveals a significant crack in the multilateral negotiations that allows Inuit, and other Indigenous Peoples, to slip through.

The UN system is a forum for countries to negotiate global affairs. But by prioritizing countries, it has yet to find a way to meaningfully incorporate the rights and attitudes of self-determining nations within existing nation-states.

Inuk hunter travelling by snow scooter on melting sea ice in Pond Inlet, Nunavut. Photo by Peter Prokosch /

No easy solution exists. Making Inuit who live in rich countries like Canada, the United States or Denmark eligible for the fund is widely seen as a red line for poorer countries who need the cash. They view Inuit eligibility as a way for rich countries to simply funnel money back to themselves to pay for harms within their own borders.

At the same time, putting developed countries in charge of the purse strings risks perpetuating paternalistic and colonial attitudes at the expense of self-determination.

The world must listen to the expertise of Inuit organizations like the Inuit Circumpolar Council because they were the ones alerting the world of climate change very early on, said Karla Jessen Williamson, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan and the former executive director of the Arctic Institute of North America, which conducts multidisciplinary research in the North.

From a governance perspective, Williamson looks to the Inuit self-governance movement, the devolution agreement signed in Nunavut last week, and the era of Truth and Reconciliation and with it the enshrining of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as examples of movements centring Indigenous sovereignty.

Indigenous Peoples have been too used to being secondary to the nation-state, whereby their ways of dealing with things in many ways is a sort of standing beside the colonial position, she explained.

Now, the Inuit Circumpolar Council is calling for Inuit to bypass the colonial restrictions of nation-states, such as Canada, the U.S. and Denmark, so they can access climate adaptation funding.

Canada is in a position to become a leader on the international level by supporting Inuit to determine their own climate adaptation policies, including through financing it with international climate funding, said Williamson.

“What's really important about this is that loss and damage funds are accessible to different peoples, nations,” added Koperqualuk. “As Inuit, we are not a nation-state, but we consider ourselves a nation.”

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
January 30, 2024, 12:40 pm

This article was updated to note that the iron ore from the Mary River mine is crushed and screened on site.

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