The sense of Inuit for climate change

 By Michelle Leslie

Climate Week in New York City is taking place just eight weeks shy of the U.S. Presidential election and is marking the first UN General Assembly meeting since the Paris Climate Change Conference, COP21, last December. This year, discussions on adaptation are expected to play a leading role. Recognizing the need to hold temperature increases to a minimum and reduce emissions, The Notre Dame Global Corporate Adaptation Prize will also acknowledge corporate investments in adaptation projects. Canada’s Arctic is already experiencing transformational climate change; temperature increases of upwards of 4 degrees Celsius have been documented. This blast of heat, freeing up more sea ice, impacting ecosystems and weakening traditional knowledge networks for the Inuit; making them one of the most at risk groups…

(Cover photo by

Fall in New York City is a time of year marked by cooler temperatures and a hot Broadway line up. This September, the Big Apple will be buzzing with more than just fine food and artistic flare as world leaders, environmentalists and citizens are gathering for Climate Week to discuss climate change, low-carbon societies and sustainability.

This year, discussions on adaptation are expected to play a leading role in the conversations.The Notre Dame Global Corporate Adaptation Prize, which will be awarded during Climate Week, acknowledges corporate investments in adaptation projects in-part based on a country’s ND-Gain Index — an analysis of vulnerability to climate change.

The importance of adaptation and the economic impacts of climate change were stressed in a recent report on adaptation between the University of Notre Dame, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and others. “A study supported by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) estimates the cumulative economic costs of damages to the physical environment, health and food security is in the range of $70-180 billion annually in 2030.”

Rigolet, Labrador, a small Inuit community of just over three-hundred, is the most southern Inuit community in the world. Remote and rugged, the impacts of a changing climate are already being felt.

“A lot of people have talked about the way ice has formed in the winter. We don’t take the same routes as we did before and you aren’t really sure about the weather,” states Inez Shiwak, Project Assistant, ‘My World’ Lab. “Before you could predict the weather, but now you can’t,” she says.

Trends in polar bear subpopulations

Investments in adaptation are critical to communities, like Rigolet, that are most exposed to shifts in long term weather patterns.

Canada’s Arctic is experiencing transformational climate change; temperature increases of upwards of 7° F (4° C) have been documented. This blast of heat is freeing up more sea ice, impacting ecosystems and changing Inuit livelihood, making them one of the most at risk groups.

It’s something leading researchers at McGill University are studying. The department of geography is home to the Climate Change Adaptation Research Group. Here the focus is on adaptation and public policy and how to partner evidence based research with traditional knowledge.

“There’s a real important dialogue that needs to happen, incorporating traditional knowledge into plans on adaptation policies,” states Dylan Clark, Research Assistant, Climate Change Adaptation Research Group. “It’s important for policy makers to listen to indigenous populations and elders and the information they have,” he says.

Researchers, working closely with communities, have noted the effects of a changing climate. Elders and harvesters in the region are frequently commenting on changing weather and ice patterns, reporting faster break up in the spring.

As the climate has shifted in Nunavut the winds have also changed, becoming stronger and more varied. Snowfall amounts have decreased while rain appears earlier and more frequently. All of this is having noticeable impacts on communities that don’t have permanent road access, making airports even more essential. Search and rescues are also becoming more common thanks to thinner ice and warmer temperatures.

Bon Jovi Loves My Town- Rigolet Labrador, Canada

In Nunavut, adaptation planning around infrastructure is already taking place. Questions are being raised about how to adjust to a decrease in permafrost and a rise in sea levels. An important piece of the adaptation puzzle that researchers noted is how social policies could negatively impact cultural behavior.

“Policies into the future will have to be careful about placing moratoriums on hunting certain animals. Rather, scientists can learn from working closely with communities who are intimately familiar with the land, spending most days outside,” according to Clark. “We could accidentally harm populations if we ban harvesting certain animals because we assume the species will be extinct. That could cause food security, health and cultural identity issues for these populations,” he says.

Case in point, a recent World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Canada study on polar bears noted discrepancies in the total global population numbers, scientific information further complicated by a large chunk of arctic data being ‘deficient.’

According to Inez Shiwak, a recent ban on Caribou hunting due to a population decrease in is having a direct impact on the traditional customs of the people of Rigolet.

“If we can’t hunt within the next few years, there will be generations that won’t be able to participate in a hunt and share it (the experience) with the community.”

Inuit communities are using their own cultural knowledge to adapt to climate change, altering hunting and harvesting times.

Adaptation policies, if done right, can reduce poverty, improve education and healthcare, making conditions better for Canada’s Inuit communities. The conversation surrounding policies on adaptation is one that is still in its infancy in many communities around Canada, but will be a key discussion this fall at Climate Week.

about the author
Michelle Leslie
Alberta, Toronto and now Ottawa. Meteorologist, Journalist & Munk School Of Global Affairs Fellow.