Patriarch wants action against climate change

In the Arctic Sea, the world is a different, vulnerable and blindingly white place, where the silence of the ice-covered landscape reveals the immense power concealed within it. The frozen North Pole, the meeting point of Asia, America and Europe, plays its own valuable part in the world’s environmental equilibrium but is now under threat, chiefly from the actions of industrially developed nations. The release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is causing major climatic changes and contributing to the greenhouse effect. The icecaps are melting. The Arctic Sea, measuring 30 million square kilometers, a sixth of the planet’s land surface, is changing. That huge ice mirror, which reflects the sun’s infrared rays, is breaking up. At the same time, industrial and radioactive waste are destroying the natural environment and marine life, causing pollution to enter the food chain right up to the approximately 4 million people who live in the area and who are now being forced to change their way of life. As scientists warn of the subsequent effects on the entire planet due to the destruction of the North Pole’s environment, competition is mounting between nations surrounding it to secure the exploitation of the huge petroleum and natural gas reserves hidden beneath it. «The Arctic icecap is shrinking at a terrifying rate,» said Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, who was in Greenland last month to lead the Patriarchate’s 7th International Environment Symposium on climate change and its effect on the Arctic and the entire world. «If Greenland’s ice melts, there will be fatal effects on the entire planet, literally a Biblical catastrophe,» he added. «Some scientists are telling us that we only have 10 years, maybe less, to restrict the emission of gases that cause the greenhouse effect and thereby avoid the overheating of the planet. So humanity cannot afford the luxury of fighting over economic, racial or religious differences. People have a responsibility to work together to act now.» Some 150 distinguished guests participated in the Patriarchate’s shipboard interfaith symposium that brought together scientists, religious leaders, environmental groups and activists as well as delegates from Arctic communities. «The changes to the environment are taking place rapidly. Just five or six years ago, the water in the fjords used to freeze over, allowing people to hunt on them. Now rising temperatures do not allow this to happen and, in 2004, for the first time we were forced to send food to the people there,» said the foreign minister of Greenland (a self-governing territory of Denmark), Aleqa Hammond. In the coastal town of Ilulissat, in the northwest of the region and where the Patriarchate’s floating symposium set out, about 4,000 inhabitants have over 2,500 dogs to draw their sleds. However, less snowfall and increasingly fragile ice no longer permit this traditional mode of transport. Even today’s means of transport, such as cars, are not always the solution, since there is no road network linking the inhabited areas. The indigenous Inuit people, particularly those living in small villages, are being isolated because of climatic change. «The ocean temperature has risen, the icecaps are disappearing, animals’ habits are changing and we are trying to adapt to the new conditions. We are having to adopt new forms of clean energy in an attempt to protect our country and to do our part toward implementing the Kyoto Protocol,» said Hammond. Alongside Ilulissat’s glacier, Sermeq Kujalleq, which is being reduced by 19 meters a day, the patriarch and representatives of other religions, along with five small children (symbolically representing the five continents) prayed silently, each according to his or her own tradition, for the protection of nature as part of God’s creation, for the benefit of future generations. «If even just the Greenland icecaps melt, sea levels will rise by 7 meters, covering whole islands and coastal areas around the planet. The map of the world will change and there will be considerable social and economic repercussions,» said Dr Antonio Nobre of Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research. «We have only about five years before the situation becomes irreversible,» he added. «We have to change the way we behave toward nature. The powerful nations must stop bowing to the demands of the petroleum companies and look for cleaner sources of energy. We citizens have to abandon excessive consumerism, and respect the environment and natural resources. We must not burn the forests, as happens in the Amazon, and recently in Greece, because we destroy natural sources of oxygen, releasing huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Already we are seeing the effects of the greenhouse phenomenon in the form of flooding, heat waves and a reversal of the seasons. Let’s not sabotage our children’s future.»