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Inuit of Greenland have weather on their side

On a sunny day, the capital of Greenland is a place of elegant beauty, its brightly painted clapboard houses scattered along the boreal shoreline, rising to a broad boulevard of chic Scandinavian buildings, shops and apartments - as if a prosperous maritime Inuit settlement had been redesigned by Ikea.

Such sunny days have lately become increasingly common in Nuuk, whose 15,000 people represent a quarter of Greenland's population, most of the rest scattered in tiny villages along a vast, roadless shoreline that encircles the ice sheet covering most of this semi-independent country.

That sheet, three kilometres thick at its centre, is melting fast, as are the ice fields that surround Greenland's north. To the rest of the world, that melting appears to be the greatest problem of our century, begetting rising ocean levels, weather volatility, reduced growing seasons and fears of famine in the central and southern portions of the globe.

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But to the mainly Inuit people of Greenland, global warming is a gift from the heavens, and not just for the obvious reason. These children of hunters and fishermen have, for much of the past century, lived a version of the humiliating life of dependence that has befallen most of the ex-nomadic peoples of the world, struggling to hold on to traditions while living in enforced and subsidized marginality.

The retreating ice is salvation: It opens fields of treasure and promises to end that humiliation. Among the many troubled ex-nomads of the world, the Inuit of Greenland have the atmosphere on their side.

The leading exponent of this view is the most powerful woman in Greenland, opposition leader Aleqa Hammond. Raised in a remote village by a single mother after her father fell through the ice while hunting, she was groomed to be the wife of a hunter, but, in her words, "no hunter wants to marry a woman who talks so much."

Days after Greenland struck oil off the Baffin Island shore, to the alarm of environmentalists and the Canadian government, Ms. Hammond, whose party has governed for most of the past three decades, told me this was just the beginning.

"We are probably one of the very few countries in the world that can say not only that climate change is not to our detriment, but that it has positive results - it makes it easier for us to have oil drilling offshore, more than ever before, because icebergs are smaller and less of a danger to rigs.

"And at the same time, the glacier is retreating and we can see the mountains now - before, they were all under ice. So now we can see with our own eyes if a mountain has something really interesting to look for. Before, we were drilling through the ice before we reached the ground, and it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Now you can see where the needle is."

Ms. Hammond may have the most explicit version of this narrative, but she's far from a radical by Greenlandic standards. Her view of the benefits of climate and environment is largely shared by her political nemesis, Prime Minister Kuupik Kleist, even if he presents it more diplomatically, taking care not to spook neighbouring governments. His party and hers are in almost total agreement on matters of energy and ecology and, between them, share more than 90 per cent of Greenland's votes.

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The philosophy of thaw is beginning to bear fruit. The retreating ice has already revealed visible zinc deposits, which are being explored by mining companies. Last week, the Nuuk parliament authorized the mining of uranium and related rare-earth minerals that have been found amid the melt. Gemstones, gold and other treasures are being explored by foreign companies, including half a dozen Canadian firms, all of whom hope that the rising temperatures and longer season will soon make it worth the considerable expense of working in Greenland.

Not a penny has been earned yet from any of this. But the excitement is here, and Nuuk is filling up with sleek office buildings housing resource company branches and the sorts of nice restaurants and high-tech equipment stores that come with an energy boom.

It may look alarming to Canadians and Europeans. But to the world's other ex-nomads - to the Roma of Europe, to the Bedouins of North Africa, to many native peoples of North America - the Greenlanders are icons. Here, amid a world of humiliation, is a proud and independent people who have the weather on their side.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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