Cold, hard facts from Greenland

British aviation officials seek to expand Stansted, London’s third airport. Opponents of the move called on an Inuit politician in a sealskin waistcoat to explain why his homeland will feel the impact. Oliver Burkeman reports.

As often happens when he travels outside his native Greenland, the Inuit politician Aqqaluk Lynge recently found himself clearing up a few misconceptions. For a start, the word "Eskimo" is generally considered offensive. Coats with fur-trimmed hoods are not de rigueur either, unless you're hunting seal. Then there's the igloo thing, and the nose-rubbing … "I think some people have a kind of cartoon in their minds," the silver-haired 59-year-old Greenlander said with a twinkly smile.

And the hundred different words for snow? "No." He laughed. "Sorry."

Despite his efforts to dispel myths about his culture, Lynge was always going to come off as a slightly exotic outsider, if only because of the sheer mundane Britishness of the setting. He was appearing on July 27 as a star witness at the public inquiry into the proposed expansion of Stansted Airport, in a low-ceilinged office building not far from the terminal building, and his sealskin waistcoat stood out against the sober suits of lawyers representing airport owner BAA.

So did his argument — which, coming after weeks of technical discussion on planning law, went to the heart of the issue. If thousands more flights were allowed to take off from Stansted – London’s third airport — each year, he told the inquiry, their impact would be felt in his homeland, in the form of thinning ice, lost hunting grounds and eroded shorelines which are already threatening many Inuit settlements in Alaska, Canada, Russia and Greenland.

It is the first time an airport planning forum in Britain has taken into account the global impact of aviation on the climate, and Stop Stansted Expansion, the campaign group that invited Lynge to testify, could hardly have hoped to create a more vivid moment. As he spoke of the damage to the Arctic environment, planes bearing the liveries of Ryanair and easyJet were taking off immediately behind him, the vast majority of their passengers on short-haul holiday trips.

"What happens in the world happens first in the Arctic," said Lynge, a former minister in Greenland's home-rule government and a vice-president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), a organization promoting Inuit rights, development and culture. The Inuit — "the people who live farther north than anyone else" — were "the canary in the global coal mine", he said. Climate change was "not just a theory to us … It is a stark and dangerous reality.” Some Inuit villages have already lost homes as the sea moves 300 metres inland in places, while thinning ice makes hunting increasingly difficult, even dangerous. "We don't hunt for sport or recreation," Lynge said. "Hunters put food on the table. You go to the supermarket. We go on the sea ice."

BAA is seeking to remove the cap that limits the number of passengers taking off from Stansted to 25 million a year. Opponents say that could see flights increase from 192,000 to 264,000 a year, raising the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from 5 million to 7 million tonnes. The inquiry's lead inspector, Alan Boyland, will make a recommendation after the process concludes in October, and a government announcement is expected next spring. Stop Stansted Expansion says it will be "the litmus test of the seriousness of the government's commitment to properly tackling the climate change issue".

As spectators' applause for Lynge's speech died down, BAA's lawyers did not seek to question his account of changes in the Arctic. Their argument is that a local planning inquiry is no place to challenge the government's overall policy on climate change, since allowing more flights from Stansted could be consistent with the overall aim of reducing carbon emissions provided sufficient reductions are made elsewhere. Flying Matters, a group backed by the airline industry, says Lynge's claims are part of "an apocalyptic campaign of green spin".

Surely, said Michael Humphries, legal counsel for BAA, Lynge agreed that it was "not for the Inuit Circumpolar Conference to tell the UK government how it should deliver its greenhouse gas totals?"

Lynge proposed a deal: "I'm not here to meddle in UK policies, if you don't meddle in my environment."

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