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News ᑎᐹᒋᒧᐧᐃᓐ

UN report highlights dangers for Cree territory and way of life

BY Ben Powless Aug 30, 2021

A new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has highlighted a “climate code red” for the planet and for humanity. The report, released August 9, is the sixth assessment undertaken by the United Nations body, and compiled the summaries of 14,000 studies. 

The report’s conclusions are generally dire. The science indicates that even if humanity stopped polluting today, warming would continue for at least 30 years. So far, we’ve seen a 1.1°C increase in average temperatures across the planet, which has already altered weather patterns, leading to heat waves, droughts and floods, forest fires, sea level rise, and more intense storms.

The warming is expected to reach at least 1.5°C by 2050, which will trigger even more extreme weather, causing food shortages affecting hundreds of millions of people. It is expected that many species of plants and animals will go extinct. If no significant action is taken, the earth could heat up by an average 3°C by the end of the century, with disastrous results. Temperatures tend to rise even quicker at the poles. 

Jeannine-Marie St-Jacques, Assistant Professor of Geography, Planning and Environment at Concordia University in Montreal, told the Nation that areas such as Eeyou Istchee can “expect to see more warming, shorter winters and a longer growing season. As snow melts out further there’s more warming, since snow reflects a lot of sunlight back into space, while bare ground absorbs sunlight and creates more warming.”

St-Jacques said that there may also be more precipitation extremes, as warmer air holds more humidity. “So more heavy snowstorms. Expect probably more snow and more rain. In communities along the coast, there’s sea level rise that will be accelerating, because as the ocean warms, water expands, and sea levels rise. There’s also melting ice from Greenland, so all that water is going into the ocean.” 

In Russia, the tundra is shrinking, but St-Jacques says she doesn’t think that’s been detected yet in northern Quebec, though there may be an increase of shrubland in forest ecosystems. “Northern winter is a great disease barrier for humans and animals,” St-Jacques noted, pointing to the rise in Lyme disease as ticks move further north. 

Pernilla Talec, the Climate Change Coordinator for the Cree Nation Government (CNG), says the IPCC report highlights what Crees and scientists have been saying for years, and shows that we must act now to ensure a best-case scenario for the future of all living species. 

“Every degree we prevent the earth from warming is extremely important,” she told the Nation. “The Cree culture is intrinsically linked to its environment. Therefore, climate change has a direct impact on the Cree way of life.”

She points to unstable ice conditions, reducing the chance for passing along traditional knowledge, causing anxiety around travel, while impacting endangered and culturally important species. Polar bears are coming closer to communities in search of food. Caribou are being threatened by habitat loss and new species migrate further north. Geese flight patterns are changing. Eelgrass meadows are disappearing, erasing a key food source and habitat for waterfowl. 

In response, the CNG has hosted a series of forums on climate change which resulted in community adaptation plans through participatory videos. The CNG also hired Talec, with the goal of creating a database and networking platform to coordinate projects in collaboration with community representatives and organizations. 

Talec says it’s good that Quebec and Ottawa are making more money available to the Cree Nation for community-based adaptation projects. At the same time, she is calling on the government to take stronger action now to limit the damage and prevent the loss of species. 

“The current pandemic has shown that we are able to adapt and change rapidly our ways of doing things. The IPCC report should be understood as a wake-up call that it is time to act drastically even if it entails economic and societal sacrifices,” Talec stated.

St-Jacques says that communities that maintain traditional skills may be in better shape than most in facing the threats brought on by climate change. But her overall message is that we will all have to work together. “Nobody as an individual will get through this, only strong communities.” 

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.