DURBAN, South Africa — In the Arctic, being able to forecast the weather from signs in nature is a traditional skill of Inuit elders — and a matter of life or death.
“My grandpa is always telling us to look at the skies, look at how the clouds are changing, to predict the weather. But it is getting harder to do,” said Jordan Konek, 23, who traveled to South Africa from Arviat in Canada’s Nunavut territory to share the climate change experiences of his Inuit community.
Ice melts unexpectedly, the snows come late, and polar bears stalk the local dump in search of food when they can’t hunt seals as usual. One man from Arviat mistook the usual thickness of ice when he went fishing a few weeks ago, and nearly drowned as a result when his snowmobile crashed through the ice into the frigid waters below.
Scientists have long said the Arctic is among the regions most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, not to mention the potential impact on the rest of the world from melting sea ice. Konek, with an awareness ribbon cut from sealskin pinned to his T-shirt, wants to highlight its effect on traditional lifestyles at the United Nations climate summit here in Durban.
These views are in dramatic contrast with the position of Canada, a pariah country at the Durban climate change conference after reports it will this month pull out of the Kyoto Protocol, the only international, legally binding agreement to minimize carbon emissions.
Canada’s conservative government previously said it would not sign on for a second Kyoto commitment period, partly because of its strong support for extracting the heavily polluting, but lucrative, tar sand oil of northern Alberta.
Canada ranked a dismal 54th, two spots below the United States, for failing to do enough to prevent climate change, on an index released Tuesday by a German nonprofit group.
Canada’s reported plan to withdraw from the Kyoto agreement has enraged environmentalists at the Durban summit.
“It’s with a reluctant heart that we accept that Canada has chosen this course,” Tim Gore, Oxfam’s climate change policy advisor, told a press briefing.
Even China has expressed disappointment in the Canadians. Following reports that Ottawa is planning to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol, China’s official Xinhua news agency said Canada is “setting a bad example” to other developed countries.
If Canada withdraws from the Kyoto Protocol “it will further hurt the international community’s endeavor to cope with climate change” and “will definitely add to the obstacles in our negotiation,” said the Xinhua report.
Canadian environment minister Peter Kent, in Durban for the second week of the summit, has refused to confirm or deny that the country is planning to pull out of the Kyoto accord.
At a briefing Tuesday, he told journalists that he had promised UN climate chief Christiana Figueres “no unfortunate surprises” during the Durban summit — but he stonewalled when asked whether Canada would quit Kyoto in the weeks that follow the summit.
The Canadian delegation has next to no presence at the summit, with media briefings held discretely at a hotel a mile away. In contrast, the United States and China hold regular briefings at the official conference center and have pavilions full of events.
South African leaders including Archbishop Desmond Tutu have said they are shocked by Canada’s position, considering the role the country played in pushing for sanctions against the apartheid regime in the 1980s.
Tutu and other prominent Africans have signed a petition against Canada, and published advertisements in international media urging Canada to take action on climate change.
“Canada, you were once considered a leader on global issues like human rights and environmental protection,” the ad said. “Today you’re home to polluting tar sands oil, speeding the dangerous effects of climate change. For us in Africa, climate change is a life and death issue.”