Drop by drop, an imposing polar bear ice sculpture is disintegrating in front of passers-by in downtown Montreal. Sophie Paradis, Quebec director of the World Wildlife Fund, explains that the work of art, which was created for the occasion of the Paris climate summit, is meant to symbolize climate change’s impact in the Arctic.

“It’s really to illustrate to what extent the temperature is changing. If it changes in the Arctic, it’s the water levels that rise, it’s communities being impoverished or having to hunt farther away,” said Paradis. “It is in fact really global: it touches all of us.”

A vulnerable population

For Canada, the fight against climate change is a big task, since 40 per cent of the country’s land mass is situated north of the Arctic Circle. Furthermore, most of the 59,445 Inuit in the country live there and are particularly affected by the consequences of global warming.

“The melting of the Arctic is impacting all aspects of Inuit life,” says Okalik Eegeesiak, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council. Describing climate change as a human rights issue, she has called for the Paris climate agreement to include the rights of Indigenous peoples. “We have the right to be cold.”

Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada

“The Inuit are certainly the most seriously threatened by the environmental changes engendered by the warming of the earth, the melting of the permafrost and the retreat of marine glaciers, because their way of life and their culture is dependent on the existence of ice and snow packs,” says Reinhard Pienitz, a researcher at Laval University’s Centre for Arctic Studies, who has observed climate variations in the Arctic for 20 years.

The melting of the permafrost is one new challenge for the Inuit. “It leads to sinking or slumping of the ground,” explains Michel Allard, who heads a team of researchers focused on adapting Nordic infrastructure to this phenomenon.

Threats to traditional way of life

Certain traditional activities of the Inuit can no longer be carried out in the same way due to the changing climate. According to Allard, melting marine ice and unpredictable weather events are creating unheard-of dangers for the local population. “When they go seal hunting, the weather changes much more suddenly than expected, the ice breaks up, and people get carried adrift. That’s a very real risk.”

Berry gathering, hunting, and fishing still represent a considerable part of the food intake for the Inuit of the Arctic. Now, however, global warming is changing the habitat of certain species of fauna and flora. In 2013, a group of researchers developed a model of evaluation that suggests caribou herds could lose up to 89 per cent of their habitat by 2080 if greenhouse gas emissions remain steady.

It’s hard for the Inuit to adapt to all these changes, says Pienitz. “About a hundred years ago, these people still lived a nomadic life, with dogsleds and igloos.”

For his part, Allard recognizes that the Inuit are among the most vulnerable populations because of their isolation, but, at the same time, considers them very resilient. “These are very skilful people who have a whole history of living in difficult conditions and adapting to very harsh conditions.”

Hope for the future

The polar bear sculpture in downtown Montreal will continue to melt until Dec. 12, the date when the Paris climate conference ends. This is how the organizations behind the project hope to show the urgency to take action.

Michel Allard is nonetheless optimistic about the negotiations in Paris. He thinks that the Arctic will be at the heart of the debates. “In order to prevent the emission of greenhouse gases from the Arctic, we have to stop the planet from heating up globally. Therefore, the Arctic becomes central,” he affirms.

It’s a vision shared by Paradis of the WWF. “We cannot permit ourselves not to be optimistic,” she says, specifying that her organization remains hopeful the Paris climate summit will lead to concrete results. After COP21, the WWF intends to encourage the Canadian government to take appropriate measures to fight climate change.

This article originally appeared in the French edition of Ricochet and has been translated.