Last week the world witnessed a stark contrast in the narratives being delivered by world leaders at COP26, the UN climate conference in Glasgow. What defined this divergence was those who are severely impacted by the climate crisis and those who have had the privilege of only recently dealing with the consequences. 

For those leaders with nations feeling the impacts on a daily basis, the commentary was grave; Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley provided a sobering warning,

“Two degrees […] is a death sentence for the people of Antigua and Barbuda, for the people of the Maldives, for the people of Dominica and Fiji, for the people of Kenya and Mozambique and yes, for the people of Samoa and Barbados. We do not want that dreaded death sentence.” 

The portrayal of ‘us and them’ has been scattered across the conference, with monolithic phrases such as global north and global south used often as a shorthand to describe the polluters and those dealing with the impact of rising carbon emissions. The risk of using these broad generalised terms is just that, they are an over-generalisation and ignore the nuance and complexity of each nation’s vast diversity. 

One example where this shorthand does not correlate is in the Circumpolar North. The Arctic’s indigenous people’s communities have been dealing with the impacts of the changing climate for the last ten years, seeing clear changes to animal migration patterns and therefore food sources, in addition to rising water levels. But the inequality is two-fold. To deal with the changing environment, their infrastructure must evolve but too often indigenous peoples are excluded from this process. 

During a panel presenting the voices from the Inuit Circumpolar Council Youth Delegation which included Adelaine Ahmasuk, Brian Pottle and Victoria Qutuuq Buschman, the discussion covered the reality of this exclusion. Victoria explained; 

“…our communities are already [in the Arctic] and are already engaging almost every day with wildlife populations, […] with sea ice dynamics, we are happy to do that research if we are given the opportunity and the resources and the capacity […] and to be able to, of course, be a part of developing the questions we think are worth answering because there is a lot of research that is done that is not applicable to our communities and that […] does not serve an ethical or equitable process.” 

Adelaine continued, expressing the importance of indigenous stories and knowledge being respected to the same degree as scientific knowledge. Brian expanded on the reality of the ‘us and them’ narrative as evidenced on an engineering placement whilst working in an Inuit community. Unaware of Brian’s lineage, a colleague overtly described Inuit people in a discriminatory way. 

These attitudes create barriers that discourage inclusive and participatory approaches, preventing informed solutions. However, with the increase in qualified science professionals in Inuit communities, Brian is hopeful for the future; 

“Historically a lot of things have been constructed by non-Inuit and engineered by non-Inuit for Inuit spaces […] that might not be as helpful as people envisioned because they’re not from the region, they don’t live there. But as we move forward there is unprecedented opportunity to make sure that it’s done right with the presumption that Inuit voices are heard.” 

COP is a unique event that brings together the voices of many leaders to face the pressing climate crisis. It is crucial we must learn from and listen to the stories of those being primarily and disproportionately impacted, champion their knowledge as we look to develop resilient infrastructure and strive to include the voices who are not at the table when decisions are being made. 

This approach outlines one of the four globally responsible principles; inclusivity. Embedding this principle into your day to day practice ensures that diverse viewpoints and knowledge are included and respected in the engineering process, ensuring a safe and just future for all. Learn more about the need to embed the globally responsible principles, and make a commitment to put this into practice by joining the Engineers Without Borders UK movement today