Why is Emma Thompson in the Arctic?
Professor Chris Williams and actress Emma Thompson discuss the threats of seismic testing and drilling for oil in the Arctic – from aboard a Greenpeace ship off of Clyde River, Nunavut
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
Clyde River is a small and remote Inuit community of 1,100 people in the northern territory of Nunavut, Canada, one of the most remote human settlements on earth. They’re battling against the Norwegian consortium of international seismic testing companies and the Canadian government.
Seismic testing is a process used to find oil and gas. Huge blasts of air are bounced off the ocean floor. According to many scientists, this causes deafening and death to marine life, forcing them to flee the area–marine life the people of Clyde River depend on for their survival.
The Canadian National Energy Board turned down the community’s case to stop the testing in 2014, saying there’d been sufficient consultation with the community and that the testing itself was safe. A federal court upheld that decision, so the community is taking the case to the Supreme Court of Canada on November 30.
The consortium of seismic blasting companies have agreed to postpone testing through 2016 as long as the legal process continues. If Clyde River loses in November, the testing will go ahead.
Renowned actress and activist Emma Thompson and environmental activist and physicist Chris Williams are in Clyde River and join us from a Greenpeace ship that has just delivered 27 solar panels to the community to show that even in the far north there’s an alternative to fossil fuels.
Emma, before we get into the whole legal case, before we get into the legal case and some of those issues, Emma, you’re asked to do all kinds of environmental issues, I am sure, all over the world. Why are you in Clyde River? Why did you decide this one was so important?
EMMA THOMPSON, ACTRESS AND WRITER: Because I went to the Arctic two years ago and saw for myself written into the landscape the effect of climate change and the environmental devastation that our overuse and continued use of fossil fuels has produced. And I spoke to climatologists and scientists there, and I understood in a very visceral, real way, standing there on mountain glaciers, what really was happening at the top of the world and its impact on not only local communities, but on the entire world. And it seemed to me to take precedence over so many other places where you–I mean, it’s all connected, actually, Paul, is the point. But the Arctic seems to me to be the epicenter of the climate change catastrophe that we’re facing. That’s why I decided to come back again.
JAY: And this issue, the overriding issue is climate change. But then there’s the specific issue of this search for oil and gas, which, obviously, if one believes what almost every scientist on the planet says, climate change is even an apocalyptic threat. Then why would one want to be searching for oil and gas anyway? But this is also an issue of the livelihood of the people of Clyde River.
THOMPSON: Indeed, absolutely. Well, it’s an issue that they’re fighting on several fronts. I mean, the battle that they’re really up against and that we’ve come to, as it were, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them to fight is this battle about seismic blasting, which is something that I didn’t fully understand. And I don’t know whether you did [incompr.] know exactly what seismic blasting was until I heard a lecture about it here, given by an extraordinary marine biologist who’s been studying animals underwater for 30 years (she hasn’t been underwater; they have). And when I understood what it actually was, I really began to see what a disastrous activity it is. And the way in which it would affect this community really marks the difference between survival and not surviving.
JAY: Chris, the oil and gas industry say that seismic testing is safe. Here’s a quote from a 2015 report by the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, who work with the oil and gas companies. They say:
Seismic surveys are generally considered not to be harmful or damaging to the marine environment. Seismic surveys are comparable to many naturally occurring sound sources, are temporary and transitory and the vast majority are conducted at frequencies below the hearing range of many marine species.
What do you make of that? In another quote we found, they claim in 30 years of doing this kind of seismic testing that they can’t find a single piece of evidence that any marine life was unduly affected.
CHRIS WILLIAMS, ADJ. PROF., DEPT. CHEM. AND SCIENCE, PACE UNIV.: We know that the oil and gas industry sings from the same playbook as the smoking industry–not only the same playbook, but they use the same lobbyists and the same research. And they told us for decades that smoking was perfectly safe, and now they’re telling us that seismic blasting is perfectly safe when that’s contradicted by lots of other evidence. I mean, we should do more research and find out more.
But when you think about animals who interact with their environment and each other through the medium of sound like we do with sight, then it’s hard to believe–I mean just from a commonsense perspective–that blasting that is the same magnitude, same order of sound as half a kilogram of dynamite, that has to go tens of meters below the surface of the ocean, through the ocean, then through rock, bounce back up to the ship, and be strong enough a signal to interpret and analyze for stuff that we shouldn’t be looking for in the first place, then I think it stands to reason–and much scientific evidence shows–that actually whales, narwhals, extremely sensitive to sound, will swim away, will change their migration patterns, will alter the reproduction–not just whales and other mammals, but also fish will then get trapped in ice.
And so I think it’s clear that not only should we not be doing it because the objective is wrong, but it damages sea life directly in ways that we’re only beginning to find out, in the same way that we’ve only just started finding out the damage of naval sonar on underwater mammals in the same way.
And so it’s urgent, actually, to stop all of this, not just before, because it’s never been done anywhere near here. And so this is actually something of a sound sanctuary for underwater mammals. And where they’re subjected to massive amounts of noise–I mean, these things go off every ten seconds over a huge area of Baffin Bay for months on end. That is the proposal. And it’s hard to believe that the mammals who inhabit the underwater world and the ocean could possibly be unaffected by the scale of noise constantly going off for months on end.
JAY: And, Emma, how dependent are the people of Clyde River on this marine life?
THOMPSON: Pretty much 100 percent. This is a community of people who’ve been living here for thousands of years and whose techniques of self-sufficient and sustainable living methods have gone on so long. And as soon as the patterns of these animals change, they will no longer be able to hunt. And when they can’t, they don’t eat. It’s as simple as that.
And one of the things that really struck me with a deadly blow was going to the single supermarket in the town here, run by a company called Northern, where the food prices–it was like being in some sort of sci-fi movie. I mean, a can of Coke (which we shouldn’t be drinking anyway) costs $6, but a tiny little piece of meat, really small, it’s $20. The prices! Tomato juice, $19.99. I mean, these are hugely inflated prices for a community where the median wage is $19,000. So if they can’t hunt and bring home what they call “country food”, which is what they live on and which is of course the healthiest diet they could possibly live on–and there’s more to say to that later if you’re interested in food security here–is that they can’t afford those prices.
So, as I say, they are completely dependent on these animals.
JAY: Alright. Chris, the case before the Supreme Court that the community of Clyde River has brought, as I said, on November 30, it hinges on whether there was real consultation with the community or not. The National Energy Board decided that–there was a meeting in the community. Why wasn’t that enough consultation?
And I guess I should add to that, in terms of what the Canadian government is bound by–and maybe you can explain that too, because I’m not entirely clear what binds them to the issue of consultation, but it is only consultation. They don’t have to be in agreement with the community. But start with the first thing. Why does the community say there wasn’t sufficient consultation?
WILLIAMS: Well, first of all, there were certainly meetings held in Clyde River or [incompr.] But when questions were asked to the government officials, to the people, the representatives of the consortium, they couldn’t answer any of them. None of the slides were in Inuktitut, which is what people predominantly, obviously, speak here, their own language. There was no any kind of answer to questions of, well, what would the real impact be on whales? What would the real impact be on narwhals, which we hunt? And they said, well, we don’t really know.
It was from people there it seemed less a consultation–and this was reported in the local media–less a consultation and a prearranged decision had already been made that this was just rubberstamping a formality without any attempt to actually grapple with the questions that an informed community was then asking, because they know the potential, the risk that is involved, because this happened in the 1970s. And the older generation in Clyde River remember that they could walk right up to seals or go up on their snowmobiles, and the seal wouldn’t move, because the seals had been deafened by that seismic testing. And so the older generation remembers that and were trying to find out more information and were not given any. And so this was really a rubberstamp on the part of the National Energy Board to say, yes, we consulted.
But it’s typical, a colonial attitude that goes back hundreds of years, that totally dismisses the knowledge and information, how informed local people are about their own environments, and saying, well, actually, we’ve already thought about this, we’ve experienced it in the past, and now we say no. And all of the Inuit organizations said no. And so how is that free and informed prior consent? Which is what they need now that Canada has signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples this year that they are now beholden to. Do they really mean what their rhetoric exposes? Or is it just words? Because if they mean what they say–.
JAY: When the National Energy Board turned this down afterwards, this was also turned down by a federal court of appeal, which is why the Supreme Court is next. The signing of the indigenous rights at the UN, does that come after the federal court’s decision? In other words, might this be–there’s kind of a new basis of law that the Supreme Court can look at that the federal court might not have.
WILLIAMS: Well, the UN declaration was signed in 2007 by most nations. There were, in fact, only four nations which did not sign it.
THOMPSON: Guess which ones?
JAY: Yes–Canada. We know that. Yes. Yes. I have dual citizenship, and as a Canadian, it’s one of the great mythologies of all self-righteous Canadians that Canada was, like, almost the only country on earth not to sign this until just recently.
So might this change the way the Supreme Court looks at it from the way the federal court of appeal looked at it?
WILLIAMS: It should change it, because those decisions were made in 2014 and 2015. And it was in 2016 that Canada formally endorsed the UN declaration and Trudeau said yes. That was voted on. And so that should change the legal landscape come November 30.
JAY: Of course, Trudeau, after having signed that, has not asked the federal government to back down on this and withdraw a permit to do the seismic testing.
WILLIAMS: Well, and also, if you read Obama and Trudeau’s joint statement on protecting the Arctic that they released in March of this year, you will see enormous amounts of fine words of about how to not just protect the Arctic, but specifically preserve the Arctic and preserve the culture of indigenous people for the use of the people who live here. And you can’t do that if you drive away all the things that they live off. So not only has Canada officially signed the UN declaration, but Trudeau has signed a joint agreement with the United States which specifically references the need to consult with and get prior consent from the indigenous community in order that they can continue with their culture and livelihood and so on.
So there are multiple ways in which the Supreme Court needs to look at the legal obligations and the political standpoint of the Canadian government.
JAY: Emma, how much media attention is this getting back home for you?
THOMPSON: Well, we haven’t gone home yet, so we’ll be coming to Toronto. We’re still here. So we will be going to Toronto first. We have been off-signal, off-line, so we haven’t been able to do much in terms of media yet.
So we’re building knowledge. I mean, this is my first time with, as it were–I’ve been to the landscape itself, but this is the human landscape I’m visiting for the first time. And so I have a lot to learn before I start spouting, as it were. And I feel as though I’m learning so much about how this extraordinary, very small community lives and how desperately it’s been affected by colonialism and how it is now possible for them to make a stand, not only for themselves, but for all of us in relation to the urgent necessity to protect the Arctic from more drilling.
I mean, the ultimate irony for me is that here we are in a place where the ice is melting. We went to a fjord yesterday were these great, huge, towering cliffs are naked. There’s no ice at all. And our Inuit leader, Jerry Natanine, he said, you know, when I came here when I was a little boy, the ice would be hanging down, and all these cliffs haven’t seen the light of day since the last Ice Age. So you’re looking at something magnificent that is also tragic, because you know it means that this new ocean that we have caused to happen at the top of the world is something that we can’t do anything about.
We have to act to protect and make the Arctic a global commons. So that’s why it’s a community issue but it’s also a global issue.
JAY: Emma, Chris, thanks very much for joining us.
WILLIAMS: Thank you.
THOMPSON: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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