Climate Hero: Caroline Cannon

Image credit: Courtesy of The Goldman Prize

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Climate Hero: Caroline Cannon

Each week One Earth is proud to feature an environmental activist and hero from around the globe who is working to create a world where humanity and nature can coexist in harmony.

In the small community of Point Hope, on the shores of the Chukchi Sea in the Arctic Circle, a community of 700 people lives sustainably. The Inupiat people rely entirely on the sea’s resources, a tradition passed down from generation to generation. Elders are revered, teaching how to respect the land and the biodiversity that brings the village clothing, shelter, and food. This is where Caroline Cannon grew up.

The Inupiat people depend on marine life, specifically the bowhead whale. Cannon’s father was a successful captain who hunted and provided for her family. Chosen by the elders in her community, Cannon became a leader in Point Hope. For over 30 years, she has represented her father’s love for the ocean and taken on the duty to protect this region.

When global gas prices started climbing, oil companies wanted access to untapped oil reserves around Point Hope. The federal government agreed and started presenting plans to open offshore oil and gas leases. Cannon went into action.

Image credit: Courtesy of The Goldman Prize

Cannon knew that one oil spill could ruin the entire ecosystem in her village. No protocols are in place to deal with such environmental catastrophes in an ocean that is frozen half of the year. Any mishap of this kind would desecrate the biodiversity of the local environment and destroy the Inupiat's way of life.

Traveling to Alaska and Washington, D.C. hundreds of times, Cannon pleaded her case at industry meetings and federal summits. Sharing her knowledge of the Arctic marine environment, she painted pictures of life in the region for others to empathize with and understand. Ultimately, she became the voice for the Inupiat people in a federal lawsuit challenging offshore oil and gas development plans.

In court, Cannon was instrumental in bringing the case to victory. A federal judge ruled in her favor because the oil and gas leases had not adequately considered the potentially disastrous impacts to the marine ecosystem. It was a win for both the Inupiat people and the global climate activist community.

Motivated by the future of her 26 grandchildren, Cannon continues speaking for Indigenous communities on Capitol Hill. She was recognized for her work when awarded the 2012 Goldman Prize honoring grassroots environmental activists. Cannon and her work are also the focus of the short documentary The Arctic Garden.

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