The Greenland paradox | Polarjournal
Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) is inhabited by an indigenous population that makes up around 90% of the total population, the highest proportion in the world. Image : Christine Zenino, Wikicommons CC BY 2.0

One of the regions most affected by climate change is Greenland. Its mainly Inuit population is seeing the effects, but to the great surprise of a sociological survey, many are unaware of the causes and of human responsibility.

If you pick up the phone and ask someone living in Greenland – and 90% of them will be Inuit – if they feel and understand that the climate is changing, you have an 80% chance of them saying yes. Greenlanders are statistically twice as likely to say they are feeling the effects of climate change than people in the rest of the Arctic. The most astonishing and paradoxical thing is that, if you ask this person if they think humans are the cause, you’ve got a 50/50 chance of getting a no. The sociological survey published Monday in Nature Climate Change highlights this paradox affecting Greenlandic society. The study was conducted by six researchers from Denmark and Greenland, as well as the USA and Canada.

For the first time since 2010, a sociological study on climate change has been carried out in Greenland, the only region of the Arctic that has not been surveyed.” Which is extremely ironic, because the people we’re talking about are by far the most affected in the Arctic,” explains Kelton Minor, a social science statistician at Columbia University in New York.

Greenlanders live along the shores of the second largest ice cap in terms of volume. Image : Irene Quaile-Kersken

In the east and north-west of the island, the score for psychological proximity to the impacts of climate change increases, with 85% of residents surveyed feeling the effects of climate change. “The people who live in these regions are on the front line when it comes to sea ice reduction,” says the author. The Inuit in these regions live mainly on the water and pack ice and essentially rely on hunting and fishing. The retreating pack ice is synonymous with habitat loss. Yet less than half of them are aware that the cause of these changes is human activity.

When the study is broken down by social category, only 42% of fishermen and hunters are aware of the origin of the changes, whereas 85% say they have noticed them. In the capital, 61% of respondents are aware of the origins of the changes they are experiencing in 71% of cases.

So what is behind this paradoxical situation?

Researchers believe they have identified the source of this phenomenon, which becomes more pronounced in small fishing and hunting villages with a different cultural orientation. “In Kalaalit, the term Sila refers to the spirit of the atmosphere and the weather, but also to consciousness and the idea of the human spirit. It’s very interesting to note that the spirit is a mixture of meteorological phenomena and human consciousness”, he explains.

Greenlanders are closer to climate change because of their lifestyle and beliefs. One might ask why they don’t identify the human cause of these changes. In Western countries, opinion on the causes of climate change often diverged according to the ideological and socio-economic positions of the populations surveyed. Weakened awareness can be further accentuated by the interests of the fossil fuel industries. “But Greenland isn’t the biggest oil and gas producer in the Arctic, it’s the smallest,” explains Kelton Minor. A further paradox is apparent to the researchers.

Greenland’s environment is changing fast. Greenland is one of the world’s leading centers for climate research. Here, researchers cross the surface of the melting Russell Glacier. Image: Kevin Krajick / Earth Institute

Greenland is a stronghold of international atmospheric and cryospheric studies, and a large part of the scientific community stays on the island, but “essential information on climate change has not infused the island’s society, there is a huge gap between science and the inhabitants”, explains the author. The study shows that young people are less aware than adults of the mechanisms of climate change.

In the rest of the world, the opposite is true: it’s young people who stimulate free society to react and adapt. According to the study, it is very important that this subject be studied in high schools in Greenland. However, many communities still do not have access to secondary education in small villages. Kelton Minor also points out that “according to the scientific literature, awareness of the causes of climate change is a very good predictor of the ability to adapt to its effects, enabling us to take action and, in particular, to plan for the long term”.

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

Link to study: Minor, K., Jensen, M.L., Hamilton, L., Bendixen, M., Lassen, D.D., Rosing, M.T., 2023. Experienceceeds awareness of anthropogenic climate change in Greenland. Nat. Air conditioning. Chang. 1-10.

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