Wednesday, June 29, 2005

On climate change, they know the truth in Tuktoyaktuk

Much of the evidence may be anecdotal, but those who live close to the land and sea know that things are changing. Up in Tuktoyaktuk, in Canada's Northwest Territories (see maps here), well above the Arctic Circle, the signs of climate change are all too obvious -- and all too worrying:
It's not just the rising water and more frequent storms. The ice breaks weeks earlier, and much faster, than it used to in spring, and forms more slowly each fall. The weather is less predictable. These are hazards for the many residents who still go out on the land to hunt seal, polar bears, muskox and caribou. The wind blows from the south more often. Long-time residents see grizzly bears, ravens, white-throated sparrows, chickadees and other creatures that never used to venture this far north. Shrubs are poking up beyond the tree line. Permafrost is starting to melt.

Tuktoyaktuk means, in the western Arctic language, "resembling a caribou." The animals are a major food source. The longer growing season produces more vegetation for them to eat. But the early thaw slows their trip to summer calving grounds on the Arctic coast, and calves born during migration are less likely to survive. Local researchers say one of the two local herds, the Porcupine, has dropped by 3 per cent a year for the past decade.

(For more, see the full Toronto Star piece here.)

So much of the discussion of climate change (a better term than global warming) takes place in the abstract, in the world of theory, with computer modelling taking inconclusive (or at least circumstantial) data and projecting perceived trends into a distant future that is difficult to grasp. And it doesn't help that the world's superpower refuses to do much about it, at least officially. The Bush Administration -- the defining characteristic of which seems to be a self-delusional veil of ignorance on a whole range of issues, from Iraq and the economy to social security and stem-cell research -- has pulled the U.S. out of the Kyoto Protocol and has more or less refused even to discuss the problem, even as Tony Blair, one of America's only allies with any clout, has publicly stated that climate change is "probably, long-term, the single most important issue we face as a global community". (See my post on Bush-Blair here.) Things aren't all that much better here in Canada, and economic booms in China, India, and Brazil are likely to contribute to a worsening of the situation.

It is difficult to deny the results of both scientific research and computer modelling -- unless, of course, you live in a faith-based reality and refuse to acknowledge such factual objectivity. But those of us who live in the real world know that the problem is real and that something needs to be done to reverse the slide into global catastrophe. We have the science to point us in the right direction, and we have bad movies like The Day After Tomorrow to arouse some popular interest in an overlooked issue, but it also helps to have those on the front lines of climate change, those who live with it on a daily basis, those whose lives are profoundly affected by it, to tell us their stories.

Now it's up to us to listen to them. And to do something about it.

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