Monday, April 25, 2005

Earth Day in the Arctic

1,000 on the ice

1,000 on the ice

I wrote this entry from Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, Canada, where I traveled in order to raise awareness about global warming and its effects on Los Angeles and on the arctic north. We are just under the arctic circle, with about 18 hours of sunlight, in this town of some 6,000 residents, most of whom are native Inuit.

We are working on a project called Arctic Wisdom, a collaboration between Global Green USA, the Natural Resouces Defense Council, and the Inuit people. Our delegation is about a dozen strong and includes business executives, climate scientists, two actor/environmentalists—Salma Hayek and Jake Gyllenhaal—and some elected officials working on local issues that tie into global warming. I have worked closely with Global Green on everything from expanding the use of solar panels on affordable housing in Los Angeles to use less fossil fuel to passing the nation's largest green building ordinance to reduce the pollution used in municipal buildings.

Today, we took to the polar ice cap with about 1,000 locals to create a piece of art called "Arctic Warning" designed by a local Inuit artist and implemented with the help of John Quigley, the Eagle Rock-based artist who came to mass attention when he sat in Old Glory, a more than 400 year-old oak tree slated for destruction in 2002 in Santa Clarita.

The north and south poles of our planet act as filters for much of the earth's pollution but also as early-warning systems for the whole planet. Pollution washes out to our oceans and eventually make their way up to the north via ocean currents, where they have become increasingly concentrated in the fatty tissues of marine mammals that form the core of the Inuit diet in many places. It has become so bad that many Inuit can no longer breast feed their children, so concentrated are these toxins in their bodies. At the same time, the polar ice caps are melting away due to global warming, at a rate that will see it disappear entirely by the year 2080.

In Nunavut, we met with Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the elected chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, who recently was honored with the Sophie Environmental Prize for her work on behalf of the 150,000 members of the Inuit people, spread across four countries. She told us this morning that many Inuit have seen themselves move from the Ice Age into the Space Age in a single lifetime, and that they have struggled to adapt to this change while still hanging on to the ancient wisdom that their elders have passed down from generation to generation. Now, faced with the effects of environmental degradation and global warming, they wanted to meet with us in order to coordinate the work that we are doing in the United States, in California, indeed in Los Angeles, with the work that they are doing as well. In her words, "we are not looking for saviors. We are looking for allies."

I told an Inuit reporter that our environmental goals in Los Angeles, like trying to move away from consuming coal and other fossil fuel and building up our Renewable Portfolio Standard of green energy at the Department of Water and Power, can help turn this crisis around. Unsatisfied with my own answer, I added that it is not just a matter of what we can do for you, it is what you can do for us, too: the ill effects of our actions are more subtle in Los Angeles (we see it in smog, in asthma) but are thrown into sharp relief in the north. Salma Hayek, who speaks powerfully about climate change, added that we are not trying to save the planet, as the planet will long outlast any of us. We are trying to save ourselves.