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Meet the Inuit activist who made climate change a human rights issue



In December 2005, Inuit author and activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier launched the world’s first legal action on climate change when she presented a 167-page petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Signed by sixty-two Inuit elders and hunters, it charged that unchecked emission of greenhouse gases from the United States had violated Inuit cultural and environmental rights as guaranteed by the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.
Watt-Cloutier changed the world by making climate change a human rights issue. So I argued, rightly I think, in 50 Canadians Who Changed the World. I had organized my Outstanding 50, all born in the twentieth century, into six broadly inclusive groups. Watt-Cloutier I profiled as primarily an activist. In presenting the petition, she  drew on an exhaustive Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) prepared over four years by 300 scientists from fifteen countries. It attested that the Arctic is experiencing some of the most rapid climate change on earth. It predicted that the change would accelerate and produce major physical, ecological, social, and economic consequences, and that these would lead to worldwide global warming and rising sea levels. Some marine species would face extinction, and the disappearance of sea ice would disrupt and might destroy the Inuit’s hunting- and food-sharing culture.
 Identifying the Inuit as “the early warning system for the entire planet,” Watt-Cloutier put a human face on the facts, figures, and graphs. “Climate change affects every facet of Inuit life,” she said. “We have a right to life, health, security, land use, subsistence and culture. These issues are the real politics of climate change.” In 2008, when Time magazine hailed her as one of a handful of “Heroes of the Environment,” Watt-Cloutier said: “Most people can’t relate to the science, to the economics, and to the technical aspects of climate change. But they can certainly connect to the human aspect.” Her aim is to “move the issue from the head to the heart.”
The following year, while accepting an honorary doctor of laws from the University of Alberta, Watt-Cloutier reviewed how the Inuit “have weathered the storm of modernization remarkably well, moving from an almost entirely traditional way of life to adopting ‘modern’ innovations all within the past sixty or seventy years.” But rapid changes and traumas “deeply wounded and dispirited many,” she said, “and translated into a ‘collective pain’ for families and communities. Substance abuse, health problems, and the loss of so many of our people to suicide have resulted.”
Through all this, the Inuit drew strength from “our land, our predictable environment and climate, and the wisdom our hunters and elders gained over millennia to help us adapt.” Now, however, climate change has made the environment unreliable and capricious: “Just as we start to come out the other side of the first wave of tumultuous change, there is yet a second wave coming at us. We face dangerously unpredictable weather, unpredictable conditions of our ice and snow, extreme erosion, and an invasion of new species. These changes threaten to erase the memory of who we are, where we have come from, and all that we wish to be.”
Writing in 2012, I added a lot more. But obviously, I could not include anything from The Right to be Cold, a national bestseller Watt-Cloutier published in 2015. Seems to me that, along with 50 Canadians, we all should have that book on our bedside tables. 
Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.

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