“A paradox of development”

It’s no surprise that circumpolar Inuit leaders who attended last month’s United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen last month, known as COP15 for short, are divided over resource development in the Arctic.

One one side, you have leaders such as Aqqaluk Lynge of the Inuit Circumpolar Council’s Greenland section, who said this last November: “When I’m lying awake at night, I pray we don’t find oil.” Or Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who frames the issue in moral terms.

On the other side you have political leaders like Greenland’s nationalist premier, Kuupik Kleist, for whom the prospect of future CO2 reduction measures comes at a most awkward moment in his country’s history. Greenland’s new self-rule arrangement with Denmark, marked with a lavish ceremony this past June 21, would, in time, give the country full independence.

But that’s only if, under a complex formula, Greenland’s oil and gas revenues rise to a level that is double the size of the block grant it receives from Denmark each year. Right now, Denmark gives the Greenland government about US $633 million each year, or about $11,000 for every man, woman and child living on the island. (This, incidentally, amounts, in per capita terms, to less than a third of what the Government of Canada gives the Government of Nunavut each year.)

The fate of Greenland’s nationalist project depends not only on the extraction of fossil fuels. Its fate also depends on a rapid and substantial rise in greenhouse gas emissions, from 639,000 tonnes a year now to 8.3 million tonnes a year by 2017. If the Greenland home rule government is forced reach into its own coffers to pay carbon offset charges on all that economic development, their day of independence could be long delayed. This explains why Aqqaluk Lynge said in Copenhagen that Inuit face “a paradox of development.”

Then, of course, there are leaders like Jimmy Stotts, the president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council. His home region, the North Slope of Alaska, depends on resource extraction. That’s their economic base. For the Inupiat of that region, resource extraction represents liberation from poverty and dependence.

Nunavut, with at least four or five energy-guzzling open-pit mining projects now at various stages of development, finds itself in a similar position. Those future mines, and the territory’s utter dependence on fossil fuel products, explains why, in 2008, most of its elected leaders firmly resisted the idea of a national carbon tax.

In this video interview posted below, Stotts mostly sticks to ICC’s six-point position statement. But at around the 7:20 mark, he asserts the right of Inuit to develop oil and gas reserves on their own lands…

…all of which means that on these issues, the people of the Arctic are not unique. We don’t like climate change and we fear for the future. But when asked to do something about it, we want someone else to pay. This is the paradox that has paralyzed Canadian governments, Liberal and Tory alike, since 1997. It’s a paradox that dogs all governments, especially those that are democratically accountable to impatient voters.

For the record, here’s a standard Inuit interpretation of the issue from Mary Simon, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami:

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