Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a renowned advocate for fighting climate change, presented a lecture on the interconnected nature of major world issues at the University of Maine Thursday night.
The lecture, titled “Everything Is Connected: Environment, Economy, Foreign Policy, Sustainability, Human Rights and Leadership in the 21st Century,” was attended by more than 200 people.
Watt-Cloutier is one of the leading voices in the battle to stem climate change. Born in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, in northern Quebec, her perspective as an Inuk presented a view of climate change with a vantage point from the top of the world.
For the first 10 years of her life, she traveled primarily by dogsled and was raised in the Inuit tradition, which she said gave her a grounded view of climate change.
Comprised of just 160,000 people and with a way of life that heavily depends on the environment, the Inuit view climate change differently than most, she said.
Advocating for the Inuk, Watt-Cloutier and 62 others were the first group ever to take legal action on the grounds of climate change when they alleged unchecked greenhouse emissions from the United States were a violation of their human rights.
“Together we showed the human face to the problem — a problem most people understood as only scientific,” she said.
“We wanted to ensure that [the lecture] also included the impact on human health,” she said.
The idea that climate change is more than a scientific problem was the central theme of the lecture.
Watt-Cloutier pointed out the physical toll climate change has had on the Inuit people, including communities that are falling into the sea, ice declines from glaciers that once supplied drinking water and frozen seas appearing later each year.
“They used to laugh that one benefit of climate change was it allowed them to boat in October,” Watt-Cloutier said.
She said by Christmas last year, there was no ice in the bay near her village and traditional dogsledding races had to be replaced with canoe races.
“It isn’t funny now,” she said.
Watt-Cloutier added that Inuit culture and history is directly tied to the ice and snow. Now, with warming temperatures, the loss of sea ice is forcing native peoples to forego their traditional way of life.
“Climate change is about our right and our ability to remain a hunting people,” she said. “Everything is connected, and if we can understand that connection, no matter where we are in the world, we can start moving forward.”
Watt-Cloutier affirmed that environmental struggles are nothing new for the Inuit people. In the 1980s, they faced grave health impacts when chemicals such as DDT were still in prevalent use.
“We were poisoned from afar,” she said. “In the meantime, the [chlorofluorocarbons] had weakened the ozone layer around the world and particularly in the Arctic.”
The stronger ultraviolet rays that resulted and the effects of the chemicals were harmful to the Inuit people, according to Watt-Cloutier. The chemicals affected nursing mothers and children most.
“When Inuk women in the ‘80s had to think twice about nursing their children, that’s when it was very personal,” she said.
Watt-Cloutier also cited the economic impacts of climate change, saying that financial costs have become a main part of the issue that can hit hard when a culture is at stake.
“The cost of inaction is what is going to create even more trouble,” she said. “What they were saying was, ‘Well, it costs too much money to stop harming your way of life.’”
Even with the disheartening picture painted at the lecture, Watt-Cloutier said she remains positive about her role in the pursuit for change. Recognizing the link between climate change and human rights will help to push the issue forward, and she plans to do her part to help move it in that direction.
“One audience at a time, one class at a time, and I’ll just carry on,” she said.
The one thing she urged audience members to take away was the human impact climate change has, and to remember not just satellite photos of the atmosphere but to also consider “those of us on the ground.”
“When you hear about climate change, it is not just about the ice and snow and polar bears. It is about communities,” Watt-Cloutier said. “We have to bring the human face, the human dimension, to this issue.”