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Lessons from White Earth

by Johannah Bernstein *

Ideally, this article should have been written in Inuit.

The language of "White Earth" provides countless words for ice, beautiful words such as hikuliaq, pegalujaq, ivuneq, akuvijaruak. Western Science on the other hand, has spawned less colourful terms such as sea ice, pack ice, frazil, shuga, and pancake ice (my personal favourite).

But none of these terms, however glaciologically useful, convey the depth of the beauty of what I saw, heard, felt or even tasted on Greenland.

From a first reading of a map of Greenland, one can immediately understand why the Inuit refer to Greenland as Kalaallit Nunaa, or "White Earth", translated in English. It is an impressive visual to be sure. But the map of Greenland only reveals half the story.
Seen from above, little reveals that the Greenland icecap, which covers 80 percent of the island, and which, in many places is more than two kilometres thick, is actually melting at a dangerous pace, after having existed for over 2 to 3 million years in a relative state of dynamic equilibrium.

One must see and indeed hear first-hand the constant pace of change that the white landscape is now undergoing as a result of climate change.

Lessons from Sermeq Kujalleq

The Greenland ice is not static, it never has been. From our helicopter we witness firsthand the rapid movement of the Ilulissat Glacier (Sermeq Kujalleq in Inuit). It is now Greenland's fastest moving glacier as a result of global warming.

The visuals are absolutely stunning. The 56 kilometre-long Ilulissat Icefjord is filled with enormous craggy bergs, some towering over 100 meters high. Occasional pools of emerald-blue water are a reminder that the floating ice pack abounds with marine resources that live in a complex but delicate food web.

The landscape has an eerily primordial, almost prehistoric feeling. I feel like I have landed directly from the moon right down to the sea-bed floor. It is very daunting, but at the same time, deeply moving. It might have been the bitter cold, but many of us are actually moved to tears.

How ironic that we humans are such geologically potent agents in contrast with the enormity of this vast frozen expanse. Nevertheless, standing in the heart of this extraordinary polar wilderness, we are deeply humbled and dwarfed by nature's extraordinary architectural feats. Seen through a wide-angled lens, the Ilulissat Glacier seems untouched and indeed untouchable by humans.

But the reality is so paradoxical.

Tragically, Ilullisat and other regions in both the North and South Poles are now among the most precarious climate hot spots on the globe, warming at nearly twice the global average rate. In the Polar Regions, the effects of exponentially rising greenhouse gas emissions are concentrated in totally outsized proportions. Just like the 100 metre-high craggy icebergs that are shed by the Ilulissat Glacier and which crash steadily through the Icefjord, on their way to Disko Bay each day.

The thunderous noise with which the Ilulissat Glacier calves bluish ice into the Icefjord is a daily climate change alarm in the eyes and ears of thousands of climate scientists around the world.

The situation regarding the overall Greenland icecap is of course just as dire.

The Greenland ice, in all its impenetrable glory has existed for over two million years, shaping the landscape, culture and history of this remote island nation. However, daily NASA satellite monitoring reveals that the icecap is melting and shrinking at an alarming rate. If as predicted, it does eventually collapse, global sea levels will rise to heights that will be catastrophic for the world, swamping every major coastal city around the globe.

This is of course a worst case scenario that is only expected to unfold over centuries. But when one considers how quickly humanity has now propelled itself into the IPCC's worst case scenarios, the Greenland alarm bell should be keeping climate negotiators up at night.

Unfortunately, the Greenland ice sheet is not on the UNFCCC climate agenda.

The new climate reality

We learn that ongoing efforts to examine the ice core from the Greenland ice cap have provided important new insights into the past instability and sensitivity of the Greenland ice to temperature changes. The more we impose human forcings, such as human-induced global warming on that ecosystem, the more likely we are to generate irreversible consequences.

However, the distressing reality is that since the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, CO2 emissions have actually accelerated from 1.3 percent per year in the 1990s, to a staggering 3.3 percent per year from 2000 to 2006.

This trajectory has propelled humanity right into the IPCC's worst case scenarios. The prognosis is very grim.

For many key parameters (i.e. global mean surface temperature, sea-level rise, ocean and ice sheet dynamics), the climate system has moved beyond patterns of natural variability. Many of the world's leading atmospheric scientists now caution that key impacts of global warming, such as sea level rise and loss of summer Arctic sea ice are happening much sooner and more severely than scientists had estimated only a few years ago.

Since we are nowhere near properly positioned to transition to a global carbon free-energy path, there is a significant risk that many of these trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts.

Unfortunately, the current climate negotiations are being carried out on the basis of outdated climate science, rather than on the latest evidence that indicates potentially disastrous tipping points in Earth systems.

Modelling the physics and the chemistry of the air in powerful supercomputers only tells one part of the climate story. In actual fact, new climate science reveals that the previous IPCC projections have underestimated the real observed processes (such as the ice albedo feedback effect) which are now driving ice loss around the world. If current IPCC climate models had in fact included ice dynamics in Greenland, the sea level rise estimated during this century could be twice as high as what the IPCC is currently projecting.

The key challenge now is ensure that the ever widening gulf between science and politics is bridged decisively.

What politics simply does not understand or accept is that weaker targets for 2020 increase the risk of crossing irreversible tipping points. This will make the task of meeting 2050 targets not only impossible, but ultimately a moot exercise in reckless number-crunching.

Lessons from our Journey to Oqaatsut

From our boat trip to the old coastal village Oqaatsut, we experience a different spatial dimension of the beauty of the ice of Disko Bay. But once again, we are reminded that this is a new landscape that nature had never intended for us to see.

For the Inuit, the frozen ice is their lifeblood. Throughout millennia, they have demonstrated a remarkable ability to live in harmony with a very hostile physical environment. Adaptation and masterful innovation have made the ice home for the Inuit. But the increasing unreliable ice conditions are affecting the Inuit's capacity to hunt for food and to sustain their traditional livelihoods.

The Inuit have always believed that their cosmos was ruled by no one. But for the first time in their social history, the Inuit's cosmos is actually being ruled by someone -- white man, whose profligate excesses have resulted in dangerous interference with the global climate system and in turn, with the ecosystem upon which their livelihood depends.

Their survival struggles are now unquestionable harbingers of an Earth system that has become far too unstable. Their struggles and lessons are rapidly becoming our own.

We have much to learn, but so little time.

Lessons from Anirniq: A Return to Soul

During our visit to the ancient settlement of Semermiut, I learn that the Inuit believe in the presence of spirit and soul -- anirniq, in all sentient and non-sentient beings. It underpins their solemn moral duty to respect all life forms.
I ponder what the Kyoto Protocol would have looked like -- had it been drafted by a group of Inuit elders.

Their cosmology, unlike our own, does not include the concept of dominion over nature. The Inuit believe instead, that the Earth is alive and that humans are connected with the Earth system in a harmonious relationship, one that must be continually renewed and revered.

For the different Inuit cultures that have lived in this settlement for millennia, survival has always depended on tightly knit social structures, with all family members playing a critical role in a class-less society. The 4,000 year-old tiny peat hut foundation that we saw in Semermiut provides us with a vivid metaphor for the importance of unity and cooperation in a hostile world.

Sadly, Inuit wisdom is simply not part of our "enlightenment" nor for that matter, our curious way of rationalising science. Their folklore and mythology reveal a very different relationship with nature than could ever be fully explained by even the most sophisticated of IPCC climate models. But what the Inuit do not have in the form of complex algorithms, they make up for by virtue of their innate ability to observe and to understand the ground-truth.

Just as we need to elevate the new climate science, so too must we draw deep from the ancient wisdom of the Inuit. We must to return to soul in this landscape of ancient and epic proportions.

Lessons from White Earth

So many lessons from White Earth, so little time.

Greenland taught us of the urgent need for a serious balancing corrective to the short-sightedness of our current response to climate change. But this requires a radically different form of political leadership, one that is based on an ability and willingness to balance competing interests in a way that respects planetary boundaries, and which bridges new science with ancient wisdom. The melting Greenland ice sheet will not wait.

The sobering fact is that whilst the Greenland ice sheet has existed for over two million years, through the unusual combination of shameful ingenuity and unapologetic ignorance, we have "geo-engineered" the ice sheet's potential rapid fire collapse to unfold in but a century.

We have so many constraints to overcome if we are to achieve the massive political, economic, scientific and social transformations required to meet the climate change challenge.

Forging a new climate deal that is truly grounded in the most authoritative science and principles of equity will require deeper modes of cooperation and new forms of innovation and ingenuity. How ironic that we have come so close to answering the question of whether we humans are alone in the universe, but are moving so very far from being able to sustain the conditions necessary for actually keeping our species alive.

The bottom line is that the international community is only negotiating that which is politically viable as opposed to what nature requires and what new science informs.

We need therefore a new collective mindset, a deep and radical change of soul and heart, and perhaps a new mental map; one that repositions humanity in a different relationship with the greater Earth community, and which recognises that in the midst of this magnificent diversity of life forms, there is common destiny.

This is the profound lesson of Inuit wisdom and of White Earth.

And this is why the 4,000 year old peat hut on Semermiut is the right place to start after all.

May 27, 2009

*Johannah Bernstein is an international environmental lawyer. She advises governments, international organisations, NGOs and the private sector on a wide range of global sustainability issues.

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