Climate Change is a Human Rights Issue: An Interview With Sheila Watt-Cloutier

On March 4th, 2016, Gate correspondent Nadia Perl spoke with Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a Canadian Inuit activist known for advancing a human rights-based approach to climate change advocacy. From serving as the spokesperson for Arctic indigenous peoples at the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants to testifying at the first hearing on climate change at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, she has been a consistent and powerful voice in discussions of climate policy. Ms. Watt-Cloutier has brought to light climate change’s  uniquely devastating effects on the Arctic by focusing on cultural and environmental rights, both in speeches around the world and in her book, The Right to Be Cold.

The Gate: What motivates you to discuss climate change as a human rights issue?

Sheila Watt-Cloutier: The protection of my Inuit culture is what motivates me. As a mother and grandmother of two grandsons who are being raised in the North, and having been raised through my own Inuit culture, I see the strength, power, and value of maintaining such a remarkable culture. It has much to offer not just for our own people but for the world as it is an environment in which you are totally dependent on your food source, where you have been protecting and loving a way of life even with all of the changes that have happened globally, and where the modern world has hit but you still remain connected and in love with your culture. Living that reality all of my life keeps me going.

Gate: What parts of your culture are threatened by climate change?

Watt-Cloutier: Everything—our culture is based on the cold, the snow, and the ice. As I say in all the talks that I give and in my book, the values and principles are just as important as the ability to live in that harsh environment, the ability to hunt, and the ability to be a sharing community connected to one another. It is that connection and ability to have our children be part of the culture that is just as powerful as anything else.

It’s not just about our inability to harvest animals due to the loss of ice—it’s about the wisdom of the land, the ice, and our elders that is being lost in the process. That part of it is just as important because as you start to lose that wisdom, you lose the ability to signal to the world what is happening to our planet. If we can no longer be out there as much as we want to and need to be, then who else is going to signal that first sign that the planet is melting? What is happening in the Arctic has a lot of meaning everywhere else.

Gate: Do you think sharing a personal narrative and the experiences of people in the Arctic is bringing the global community to action?

Watt-Cloutier: In some areas, and on some levels, it is. I have seen changes happening in how people perceive things. The world hardly knows who the people of the Arctic are, much less the changes that globalization and modernization are causing in the Arctic and among its people. When they hear these human stories, rather than just reading in the newspaper about carbon dioxide emissions, they start to see that it isn’t just about the Arctic. What is happening in the Arctic is really affecting many other places in the world—there is that interconnectivity. I think there are pockets of this awareness in certain countries, or even in certain states, like provinces in Canada that are highly dependent on oil sands or coal. But I believe that those pockets will grow and that there is going to be more awareness. When public perception shifts, it is going to shift very quickly when we realize that it isn’t be as costly as we thought it was going to be. We already know that some of these are not going to cost as much as we initially thought they would. When people start to take the risks and [take] the plunge to do the right thing, that is when I think we are going to have a major shift. The proof will be in the pudding, so to speak, and people could be convinced of that. I think that there is going to be new technology created that will change the landscape. It will literally change the landscape, excuse the pun.

Gate: So you have referenced these tensions between communities that are especially reliant on natural resources in their economy. As a leader from one of these communities, how do you answer those tensions?

Watt-Cloutier: One has to understand that it is not the vulnerable and the poor of the world who are going to create new technologies. The people who have the infrastructure and the know-how need to do that. And then we will follow suit, and we will be part of that new technology that is not spewing out so much carbon dioxide into the world. You cannot expect the people who are most negatively impacted, who don’t have the resources, and who don’t have the mechanisms, to either create or even adapt to these changes to find the solutions. What we can do, and what I do, is tell human stories of how the inaction of the world is impacting people’s day-to-day lives. It is up to the governments, industries, policy-makers, businessmen and the corporate world to change this around—that’s where the onus really lies.

Gate: You have held a variety of leadership positions, regionally and internationally. Where do you feel you have had the most influence?

Watt-Cloutier: I don’t just deal with climate change. The climate change issue that I deal with is very connected to all kinds of other things—it is not siloed as though it is an environmental issue unto itself. The problems that we face at the social level and the health level are all connected to the environment and the environment is all connected to us. These issues are all very holistic in that sense.

I’ve worked on education issues to try to change a system that I, and a team of people, felt was not working for our younger generation. I’ve worked on social issues, like addictions—I created an addiction center for the younger generation that was coming to post-secondary education in Montreal. Where I am more known, of course, is the global work of outreach protecting the environment of the Arctic. Someone once asked me, “In the North, why do you spend so much time on environmental issues when we have so many social and health issues?” and my immediate response was “There’s no disconnect between any of it.” If you think we have health issues now, if you think we have social issues now, take away the environment—you ain’t seen nothing yet. Our sense of grounding in the environment has been shaken so badly. We need to have our climate and our environment intact in order for us to find our feet back on that solid ice. That is what this is all about.

Gate: What do you think international law can contribute to the Arctic, and what do you think are its limitations?

Watt-Cloutier: I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know all of what international law can do. I can only tell you the instruments that we have tried to use were to signal to the world that climate change is a human rights issue and that we have to address these issues wherever we go as a human rights issue. The doctrine of collective human rights brings people together—it brings cultures together, it brings countries together, and it brings the world together. When everything is about human rights, it is harder for climate negotiations to get derailed into some political issue or other discourse. For me, the doctrine of collective human rights is what can really solidify the protection of human rights and have them entrenched in these bodies.

But there are limitations. Again, for example, on the climate change issue, there are close to two hundred countries that are trying to negotiate, that have all of their own priorities and all their own aspirations, such as India and China and poor countries who want to develop. Sometimes, I have more hope for countries like China than I do in some developed countries.
Some of the audiences that I speak to in developed countries, go, “Oh, really?”

I might be naive, but at the same time, there is good in people. Can you imagine if China decided that it was going to do the right thing? How that would change the pollution and the carbon dioxide emissions overnight? So why not work at that level? Economists and architects and engineers and politicians, that’s what they’re doing. My job is to try to tell those human stories so that even policy-makers, even architects, whoever, whatever you do in your daily life, can bring that human face and that human story back. We can think our way through climate change but reforms aren’t going to happen when we think our way through. Changes are going to happen when we bring these issues from the head to the heart, where all change happens. That is where I feel I can speak to those issues.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here

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