Northern stewards speak out on climate change

When Jimmy Johnny was young, his grandmother told him about the future. “She said, ‘You’ll see changes,’” the Mayo…

When Jimmy Johnny was young, his grandmother told him about the future.

“She said, ‘You’ll see changes,’” the Mayo elder told delegates at the Yukon North Slope conference on Tuesday.

“You’ll see the ground melting, and willows and lakes drying up and the animal food getting all dried up.

“She said, ‘You’ll see these things soon,’” said Johnny.

And she was right.

For the last few years, Johnny has been shooting video footage in the Mayo area, to document the rapid environmental changes he has witnessed.

“In my guiding years, I’ve seen a lot of changes throughout the trails I rode by horseback,” he said.

“And some of our trails are melting — some of the hillsides are melting.

“This past fall, I’ve seen some changes in the lichen the caribou eat. In some places it’s turning grey.

“And the Bonnet Plume River and Snake River are beginning to dry up. And the beavers are moving out.”

Carleton University professor Chris Burn, who spends summers in Mayo studying permafrost, shows Johnny’s videos to his students, “to try and convince young people they should be studying some of these things.”

One of the plenary speakers at the conference, Burn has spent his life watching the effects of climate change unfold in the North.

“And there’s a sense, sometimes, of helplessness about these changes in the environment that have been observed,” he said.

The most rapid warming in the world is occurring in the Western Arctic and the Yukon, Burn told delegates.

Since 1970, the average temperature in this region has risen by 2.5 degrees Celsius.

Even a year ago, many of these climatic changes were only discussed in conferences like this one, and that was as far as it went, said Burn.

But now there appears to be a national movement in Canada, and possibility even a sense in the US, that climate change and its effects on the environment are things that need to be considered.

It’s become clear that climate change is not the result of some natural process, but that human activities are contributing to those effects, he said.

“And those human activities are not necessarily to the benefit of everyone involved.”

If humans are contributing to climate change, then humans can also help to manage its effects, added Burn.

But managing climate change is proving difficult.

And Burn blames it on a misguided reliance on science.

It’s important to separate science from management, he said.

Often, when government makes a management decision that’s unpopular, it argues it was science-based, said Burn.

“Politically, science is often used to camouflage management decisions.

“But, fundamentally, management is about how we want to live.

“And once that’s decided, science can help you do that.”

Management sets a direction, said Burn, who used the Mackenzie gas project as an example.

For the gas project, a panel holds hearings to determine what proponents want, and what concerns residents.

Once a decision is made, then science can step in, he said.

“Science is useful when determining how you should be doing something, but does not tell you what you should do.”

Recently, there’s been a change in the way governments view climate change, said Burn, noting that Premier Dennis Fentie mentioned it during the opening of the conference.

But so far, no real action has been taken, he said.

“If you’re active in management, and do something, it’s often expensive.

“While if you’re passive, it doesn’t cost nearly as much.”

There are people in Whitehorse who don’t use much energy, said Burn.

They’ve made a conscious decision to lessen their ecological footprint.

And there are people here who use huge amounts of energy.

“At the moment, society says both are fine,” said Burn.

Government has not yet made a management decision about climate change.

“And government always trumps science,” he added.

Usually, when faced with a problem, government will set up a program and the problem eventually goes away.

But climate change isn’t like this, said Burn.

“This issue isn’t going away — it’s going to continue regardless of Harper or Bush.”

And in the North, one of the most affected areas, people have a responsibility to make their stories, views, and objectives clear to the rest of Canada, to contribute to national climate change management.

“If we are conscious that people are affecting the environment, then it is possible, not necessarily easy, but possible, to try to manage that change,” said Burn.

“But that management will only happen with the participation of people who are in affected areas.”

“My grandma would say to me, ‘you have to learn to live with it,’” said Johnny, after Burn spoke.

“You can’t fight nature, or beat nature, just live with it and take it as it comes,” she told her grandson.

But Johnny has opted to speak out.

This is his responsibility as a northerner, said Burn.

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