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Strengthening Culture Through Change: Will Climate Change Strengthen or Destroy Us?

Luncheon Address by

Aqqaluk Lynge, President ICC Greenland

University of Edinburgh, Scotland

It is a great honour for me to be here and to be asked to speak to you today about climate change and how it is affecting my people, the Inuit.

Before I begin, I would like to thank the University of Edinburg, the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition [?], the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and in particular Mike Robinson for having invited me to be a guest here today. You have been very kind.

I would also like to commend you here in Scotland for the ambitious Climate Change Act passed by your Parliament earlier this year. In these days leading up to the international climate change summit in Copenhagen, it is encouraging to see Scotland step forward to show leadership in this way. I wish you much courage and determination as you work out the details of how to meet this challenging commitment and thereby serve as a role model for other countries around the world.


When you think of Greenland, you likely think of glaciers and icebergs, and more generally, of ice. I hope that after this talk you will also think of my people and our intimate relationship with the ice. In the Inuit language, we use the word sila for ice. But sila also means much more than ice. It also means weather, climate, environment, sky, and indeed, the universe. So when Inuit experience changes to the ice, as we are now due to the first effects of climate change, this is more than “just” a change in ice conditions and climate, it is a change in our basic environment and indeed, our universe. Perhaps this concept can help you to imagine that Inuit traditions are being severely tested by the changing Arctic environment.

I would like to take some of our time here to explore this notion of changes and adaptation with you by looking back at other, perhaps equally significant disruptions that faced our people over time. And I’d like to also talk to you about ice.

It is my personal belief that strong cultures usually adapt to change and, in fact, are strengthened by it. I believe that this has happened with Inuit over time. We continue to be a strong people in spite of foreign whalers having decimated our stocks starting a few hundred years ago; in spite of missionaries changing our religion; in spite of colonization; in spite of foreign diseases that temporarily weakened us; and in spite of the Internet, for that matter. Other evidence, I admit, points to cultures that have been severely threatened and indeed destroyed by various outside influences. And, of course, Inuit have taken on many negative aspects of the outside world and some parts of us have been weakened by them.

There is no longer any doubt that climate change is upon us and that it is real, that it is dramatic and life-altering for Inuit. For my people. Similar to some of our first experiences with kalunaat from Europe, there is fear among us because of this new outside force called climate change. Yet, I think it would be unwise for us to throw in the towel. Our traditions are strong and we have adapted in the past. Let us hope we can do so once again with this new and devastating threat.

Inuit live near the Bering Strait in Russia, in Alaska, Arctic Canada, and Greenland. And we are all affected by climate change. We have lived there for thousands of years – long before there was such a place called Canada, or Alaska, or Greenland. Artificial boundaries were created through a process of domination and colonization. We are the same people, speak the same language, eat the same whale maktak, and subsist off the same Arctic ocean. It wasn’t until1977 that Inuit were first brought together from across these new nations by an Alaskan Inupiak, Eben Hopson. It was there that the Inuit Circumpolar Conference – now Council – was born. The Inuit Circumpolar Council, or ICC, is the organization that represents all Inuit on matters of international concern, environment, and human rights. I was the Chair of the larger organization for 6 years and for the past 7, I have been the president of the Greenland chapter. Climate change is something that ICC takes very seriously and has done much lobbying internationally to try to halt it. We are active within many international bodies, including the 8-nation Arctic Council where we and five other indigenous peoples’ organizations have permanent participant status.

Some time ago, Inuit hunters came to ICC to tell us that there was something radically different going on. With Inuit science guiding them, they brought reports of thinning ice, disappearing ice floes, changing animal migration patterns, and eroding shores. Their traditional knowledge, which they received from their grandparents, who in turn received it from their grandparents before them, had given them an understanding that animal migration patterns change, as does the climate. But something was different they told us. They could no longer rely on their hunter knowledge in the same way.

Although I have never been a fulltime hunter, like all Greenlanders, I grew up around ice and observed its behaviour. Not as keenly as the seasoned hunter on a kayak attempting to harpoon a beluga whale, but I do still have a lot of respect for ice. I come from the Disko Bay area, where most of the North Atlantic’s icebergs are produced by breaking off the Greenland ice cap and thunderously crashing into the sea below. It is quite a breathtaking sight, even for those of us who grew up nearby. UNESCO, in fact, has named the Disko Bay fjord – with its thousands of floating icebergs – a world heritage site.

One must respect, and sometimes fear ice. It is the giver of life for us. Fish are drawn to the nutrient-rich waters at the base of the freshwater icebergs, which in turn, brings seabirds and seals. I was once hunting near a most magnificent iceberg possessing unimaginable colours and peaks and towers rising high into the beautiful blue sky. At the time I imagined it to be large-scale model of the Sydney Opera House. I was, luckily, not in a kayak but in a small motorized boat along with a friend. Even luckier, there was another motorized boat and two other companions in it. The opera house towering above us suddenly began to heave, and groan, and sway. I had never been so dangerously close to a calving iceberg before. We powered away. But only a minute later, my motor stalled. The other boat saw us in trouble, swung back, and threw us a rope and pulled us slowly away from the iceberg that was now rocking back towards us, not more than 50 metres away. I kept pulling the starter rope on the engine. Over and over again. Finally it sputtered and away we went. I looked back and a huge rolling wave came at us and under us, propelling us forward. Again fortunate, the engine picked up speed and away we raced. When I dared slow down the boat, we looked back and saw nothing but thousands of small icebergs and floating freshwater pieces of ice where the opera house once stood.


One must respect sea ice as well. We depend on this frozen saltwater for a large part of our hunt. Seals and walruses need the sea ice for many reasons, such as carrying them to different hunting grounds, and it is a place for them to give birth to their young. It is also a place where they can rest and escape certain predators. Sea ice close to land is an ideal place for our hunters to travel by dog sledge or even by foot. One must be more careful in pack ice further out, especially if one is in a boat. A dog team can navigate the pack ice well, if an experienced driver is with them. A hunter gets to know his territory and the behaviour of “his” ice. He understands where the ice is thick and where it is thin and too dangerous to travel. He also knows how and when to approach the ice. Who knows what will happen in a few years from now, but already hunters are telling us that the ice is unpredictable in many places and they are not always sure of dealing with the different ice we see today. Or the lack of ice. Or the thin ice. And they tell us that some traditional hunting areas are impossible to get to because of eroding shorelines.

So, where does all of this leave us?

The Inuit Circumpolar Council is working on many fronts to both combat climate change and to encourage work by and with others on adaptation. ICC promoted the need for both mitigation and adaptation at the 2006 Arctic Council foreign ministers’ meeting in Salekhard, Russia, again when the Arctic Council foreign ministers met in Tromsø, Norway earlier this year, and in countless international meetings, media interviews, and public presentations such as this one.

To be honest, we are not yet sure what we might mean by adaptation. How does one adapt to an unknown? We are told that Arctic warming is sure to continue, but what will be the ultimate effect?

As you know, international political leaders are in the midst of intense negotiations leading up to the Climate Change Summit taking place in Copenhagen in a few weeks. From what we hear in the media, tensions are mounting between the rich nations, the poorer nations, and the poorer nations that are quickly becoming rich. Scientists and political analysts tell us these negotiations may be the last chance for a global agreement on carbon emissions before the overabundance of carbon in the atmosphere reaches a point of no return. A point where increased temperatures set in motion an irreversible sequence of catastrophic changes. Despite such frightening warnings, the recent news about the international negotiations is not encouraging. We are not yet sure what will happen in Copenhagen.

One possible outcome of the Copenhagen summit is a rapid growth in what are called “carbon offset programs.” These programs may sound like a good idea because they allow rich countries to pay poorer countries or countries with more space money to grow new forests that will collect carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The poor countries earn money, the rich countries keep on emitting carbon, and the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere apparently goes down because of all the new trees. But are the spaces where the new forests will be planted actually uninhabited, or will people be displaced by them? And will the trees really be planted and left to grow, or will they be plundered and sold? How can we know these programs will actually work?

Lately we are also hearing some scientists and also some politicians speak out about more drastic measures that may be necessary if carbon emissions are not adequately curbed. They are tossing around a number of futuristic ideas about how science and technology might be able to step in and save the world from climate change. These include ideas such as creating sunshades in space to block some of the sun’s rays from reaching the earth; using ships to spray seawater into the sky in order to make the clouds reflect more of the sun’s warmth back away from the earth; or sending jets to spray sulphur into the stratosphere in order to mimic the cooling effects of a large volcano or a massive forest fire. I know these scientists mean well, but isn’t it enough that advances in industry, science, and technology resulted in climate change, and that for a long time people did not even realize this was happening? Do we really believe that scientists can fix one potentially catastrophic change with another? What will happen to the water, the trees, the birds and fish, or the people here in Scotland if they put up a sunshade? What will happen to the seals, the bears, the fish, or the seabirds in Greenland if someone decides the best solution is to spray sulphur into the air above the Arctic and then the sulphur rains down onto our glaciers and into our seas? Will the fish and sea mammals continue to sustain my people or will eating them make us sick?

Ladies and gentlemen, these are frightening questions. And the answers to these questions may be even more frightening. I sincerely hope we find better ways to deal with climate change – ways that do not create an even greater ecological problem, and ways that treat marginalized peoples with respect rather than taking their lands and livelihoods in order to plant forests.

The effects of climate change are already forcing us to adapt, especially among my people in the Arctic, and on many small islands around the world that are being swallowed up by the rising oceans. Isn’t adapting to climate change difficult enough without the one-two-punch of climate change plus the consequences of a half-baked “solution” to it?


Let us return to the story of my people in Greenland, of another time when we were forced to change and adapt. A few hundred years ago, when the Danish kingdom came to Greenland along with the Lutheran missionaries, we weren’t sure what hit us then either. Nor what would ensue. At first, our day to day contact was with the missionaries. They read us their scriptures and many converted. We adapted to our new neighbours – our colonizers – even though we didn’t always like them and we were not treated well, to say the least. We took on both positive and negative elements of our new masters. Sometimes this happened through coercion and deceit. At other times, we willingly accepted the new peoples’ approach.

Some people say that our Shamans disappeared, but shamanism never really left us. We took on a new religion publicly, but many Greenlanders to this day, in private, integrate elements of both. In fact, our people did not really find the story of the Danish God all that different from our understanding of the cosmos. My ancestors, though, ironically found the message that was being delivered wasn’t being lived by those who delivered it. They also talked about a better place somewhere “up there”. Their heaven was a lot like what we called “down here”, but it resonated with us. The unfortunate aftermath of having taken on the colonizer’s religion, in my opinion, was that we were no longer holy. Heaven left us.

Today’s Greenland is not holy. We have taken on the good things – and there are many. And we have taken on the bad. It is our job now to weed out the bad that now makes up who we are. Danes sometimes come to us and say, “why are your suicide rates so high?” “Why are there so many alcoholics among you?” They might as well ask us “what is wrong with you?” Their questions are partially valid. We are no longer holy. And I shudder when I hear fellow Inuit, or anthropologists from abroad romanticising our way of life today. We have a duality that we must come to understand better. But that understanding must go both ways. Those that ask us “what is wrong with you?” are often the heads of our colleges, teach in our children’s schools, run our health centres, and develop our public policy. How can they extract themselves from the research they do on us? It is true we have not become Danes, and we never will. We have learned to respect each other and co-exist peacefully. We are friends. But we are Inuit. We have adapted. But we are Inuit. We have been scarred by the colonial experience and we still struggle to this day for further self-government. We struggle for this because we are a strong people and possess a strong culture. Some of our traditions have changed but essentially we are a people who understands itself.

In 1979, Greenland was “given” a form of self government that was called “home rule”. Thirty years later, following lengthy negotiations between Greenland and Denmark, and after a referendum in which Greenlanders voted overwhelmingly in favour of increased autonomy, Greenland now has what we call “self-government” or “Namminersorneq“ in Greenlandic, and “Selvstyre“ in Danish, as of June of this year. This is an exciting time for my people and my country, as we forge ahead with a unique form of governance that combines Greenlandic and Danish elements. Denmark still has strong influence on our society and our politics, and we remain connected to Denmark on matters of national defence, foreign affairs, and still for some of the finances to run the country. In order to pay for the increasing needs of our society, such as creating jobs for our very young population, perhaps we will soon become more dependent on oil, gas, and mining companies. So you see, we are excited to be independent now, but there remains a possibility that we may become dependent again, but on the lure of resources maybe.

When I was much younger and before the 1979 Home Rule Act was enacted in the Danish Parliament, I wrote a poem that might sound a bit angry, and I might not write it today. But as we are taking the first steps toward change in our political environment, it may be important for us Greenlanders to remember what our thoughts were back then. Here are a few lines – translated into English – from that poem:


To do things gradually

has always been your best weapon

it doesn’t give open wounds

it doesn’t amputate our limbs

nor does it kill

Instead you survey the land

and say there is too much – for us

Instead you count the animals

and say there are too few – for you

You import illnesses

and give us a hospital


You give us a school

and steal our language

But we don’t want (your) charity

we want the land that was always ours


We want the land that was always ours. Yet we know the land will never be as it was. Religion, politics, trade, whalers, and others have changed that. And we Greenlanders have changed and adapted and, along the way, strengthened many aspects of our culture.

It is too early to tell how climate change will ultimately affect us. Will the impact of climate change be as powerful and culture-changing as our missionaries and our colonizers were? Will we find the right adaptation measures? I don’t know the answer to that. I do know, however, that we will be strong in our resolve to take our own steps in dealing with this. Sometimes we will do it alone, and at other times we will reach out in partnership.

Apart from how climate change will affect our hunters and our sila directly, I have another significant concern that involves western science. With all the flurry of scientific enquiry on this issue, one could easily be led to believe that it is the researchers who are the most affected by the world’s changing climate, and not the Inuit. I plead with western scientists to be careful how you conduct your research in our land. Work with us as equal partners and not as the colonizers and missionaries did. Help us deal with not only your own interesting research, but with our concerns such as how to deal with industry, which is keen to see an Arctic sea route open up to them.

Since Scotland, like Greenland, is a country with a strong connection to the sea, I also wish to insert a note here regarding the devastating effect of the EU seal ban on the economy of Greenland and on the well-being of Inuit. The European Union import ban on seal products has had a direct and negative impact on Inuit. While the EU legislation includes a sort of exemption for Inuit who hunt seals in a traditional way, the EU’s ban has hurt the small and sustainable, community-based market developed by Inuit across the Arctic. Exemptions for Inuit have not worked before, and I do not believe that the exemption will work this time around either. Inuit communities are feeling severe stress. I only hope the effects will not be as harsh as in the 1980s when the EU also banned seal products for a time. Back then we saw a jump in suicides among Inuit which could be traced back to the catastrophic effect of the EU seal ban on the lives of Inuit sealers.

In conclusion -- it is my belief that many things have helped strengthen us… much of it has been adversity that tested our culture, our way of life, over the centuries. The attack on our seals is yet another rone. The thinning ice I talked about earlier will indeed also contribute to Inuit traditions changing. But it is my hope that through the process of fighting for mitigation and developing the best adaptation mechanisms possible, our Inuit culture will not only survive, but thrive.