Ilulissat Icefjord into which 45 km3 of ice are calved from the Greenland icecap on a yearly basis. Photo: Claus Grue/WCC

Ilulissat Icefjord into which 45 km3 of ice are calved from the Greenland icecap on a yearly basis. Photo: Claus Grue/WCC

*By Claus Grue

It has been a long hot summer in Greenland. Not only in terms of record high temperatures but also politically in terms of outrage over US president Donald Trump’s surprise attempt to “buy” the island. That also caused a diplomatic row with NATO-ally Denmark, which Greenland has been part of since 1721.

Describing his offer as “basically a real estate-deal”, and climate change as “weather”, it is fair to assume that Trump wouldn’t have hesitated to launch a large-scale commercial exploitation of Greenland’s vast natural resources.

Such threats to both the environment and the prevalent Inuit culture, is what worries Lene Kielsen Holm, a scientist specializing in anthropology at the Greenland Climate Research Centre, the most:

“With warmer temperatures it becomes easier to extract minerals. Multinational mining companies are already knocking on Greenland’s door to reap the profits”, she explains.

As an anthropologist she focuses on the impact climate change has on human life from a cultural and social perspective. She works closely with hunters and fishermen along the coastline to study changes in fauna and interactions between species critical to Greenland, such as polar bear, walrus, shrimp, halibut, whales and birds.

The Greenland Climate Research Centre cooperates with universities around the globe on climate matters.

“Our research is interdisciplinary. An important aspect of our work is concern with understanding climate change within the context of other changes and societal and economic transformations in Greenland. That include resource development and extractive industries”, Kielsen Holm explains.

A just transition including all

These concerns harmonize well with the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) holistic approach to climate change issues, in which human and social aspects are critical. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Madrid in early December, social perspectives will be on the agenda and highlighted at side events in cooperation with Lutheran World Federation and ACT Alliance.

“The environmental agenda on climate change must be closely aligned with a social agenda where perspectives of indigenous people, as well as communities dependent on the fossil fuel industry for their livelihood, are taken into account”, says Rev. Henrik Grape, senior advisor for care and creation, sustainability and climate justice at WCC.

He emphasizes what he calls “a just transition”, meaning the importance of including people living in rustbelt- and mining areas in discussions on climate change, so that all perspectives are fully covered.

“That also include spiritual dimensions and faith perspectives, which are immensely important since we all share the same concerns about how to live together in peace and harmony”, Grape points out.

The spiritual wisdom of indigenous people, who live close to the eco-systems and thus are the ones who are affected the most by climate change, will be particularly highlighted at a side event.

“Indigenous people possess a special understanding of how all elements in nature are interdependent. Their instincts and long firsthand experiences are invaluable and should be treasured”, says Grape.

Shoreline towards Disko Bay in Ilulissat, Greenland. Photo: Claus Grue/WCC

A question of political will

A rise in temperatures in Greenland and other places in the Arctic has been anticipated by scientists, but it has happened much faster and more dramatically than expected. This year’s record temperatures confirm an ongoing trend where the ten warmest years ever recorded have occurred during the 21st century. This alarming development mirrors the upward curve of fossil fuel emission levels and shows no signs of reversal.

“In the end, the political will of world leaders will determine the fate of Mother Earth and how much damage global warming will be allowed to cause before the trend is reversed. The technology is there to replace fossil fuels with environment-friendly alternatives. What is lacking behind are legislative measures to stimulate faster implementation of such alternatives”, says Grape.

What also worries him is the “polarization around polar ice” as he puts it, which has placed climate change issues at opposite ends on a political left-to-right scale.

“This is very unfortunate since scientific evidence is clear on these matters. Climate change is not a banality and the political polarization around it benefits no one. Instead, we must all work together. Time is running out and the longer we wait, the more difficult and costly will it be to turn things right”, Grape continues.

Again, he underlines the importance of a holistic approach on environmental issues and the critical role churches and faith-based organizations play in that sense.

Climate change refugees

While politicians argue and fossil fuel emissions increase, the inland ice cap covering most of the world’s largest island continue to melt at an unprecedented rate. At the bottom of the Ilulissat Icefjord on Greenland’s west coast, the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier at the edge of the inland ice sheet now moves 40 meters per day, compared with 20 meters just ten years ago. It releases larger volumes of ice, an estimated 45 cubic kilometres per year, than any other glacier in the Northern Hemisphere. In spring and summer, calved icebergs the size of five-story buildings float downstream through the fjord towards the Atlantic Ocean, where they eventually melt.

Rising temperatures and a continued increase in volumes of calved inland ice directly affect the lives of people thousands of miles away. Low-lying islands around the globe will be drowned by rising waters and along with that precious cultures will be erased. Climate change refugees may well become a new phenomenon. Unless bold action is taken.

*Claus Grue is a communication consultant for the World Council of Churches.

Photo gallery "20 phases of ice"

“There are no spare parts for whales” (WCC news feature, 13 June 2019)

Greenland church life and climate challenges featured in new series (WCC press release, 24 May 2019)

WCC's work on Care for creation and climate justice