Inuit to Charge U.S. for Climate Change
By Stephen Leahy*
The Inuit peoples of the Arctic regions hope the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will find that the United States, the leading emitter of carbon dioxide, is threatening their existence. Their action is seen as the first case that links climate change and the rights of indigenous communities.
BROOKLIN, Canada - The Inuit people of the Arctic regions are preparing to charge the United States with human rights violations, saying that country is the leading culprit behind climate change, which threatens their way of life -- and their very survival.
The sharp increase in temperatures in the Arctic has led to dramatic losses of sea ice and melting permafrost (the layer of ground that normally remains frozen year round), which have destroyed buildings and roads and forced relocations of entire native Inuit villages.
A recent four-year international scientific study concluded that polar bears (Thalarctos maritimus), walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) and some seal species the Inuit depend on for survival could be extinct by the middle of this century due to global warming.
Because of this looming crisis, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), a group representing some 155,000 people in the Arctic regions of Canada, Russia, Greenland, and the United States, will present a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in the next few months.
Their goal is for the IACHR, an independent agency of the Organization of American States, to find against the United States, the world's leading producer of greenhouse gases (29 percent), for causing global warming and threatening the Inuit's existence.
''Global warming is destroying the Inuit sea ice culture. Our traditional wisdom on how to survive and thrive on the land is becoming useless because everything is changing, and changing fast,'' ICC chairwoman Sheila Watt-Cloutier told Tierramérica in an interview last year.
The Inuit support the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which takes effect Feb. 16, because it is the only global instrument available for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, said Watt-Cloutier. But ''emission reductions will have to go way beyond Kyoto to be of any help to the Arctic peoples.''
U.S. President George W. Bush withdrew his country's signature from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, shortly after taking office, arguing that compliance with the emissions reduction targets would hurt the national economy.
The 136 countries that ratified the accord are legally bound to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of five percent from 1990 levels each year between 2008 and 2012.
"It is the responsibility of the United States, as the largest source of greenhouse gases, to take immediate action to protect the rights of the Inuit and others around the world," Martin Wagner, an international attorney for Earthjustice, a U.S.-based non-profit law firm representing the Inuit, told Tierramérica.
Impacts from climate change are well documented in the Arctic, and the United States has officially admitted that man-made emissions are, in part, responsible for global warming. The environmental devastation in the Arctic regions is not so different from other international cases where dams, logging or toxic chemical spills in waterways have been interpreted as violations of basic human rights, Wagner said.
But the IACHR is a commission, not a tribunal that can issue binding verdicts, and can do little more than make recommendations.
''If the commission finds that the United States has violated the Inuit's rights, it will recommend that the United States take steps to end the violation,'' says Donald Goldberg, senior attorney from the Center for International Environmental Law, a Washington-based group that is also helping the Inuit with their petition.
While the IACHR cannot enforce its recommendations, it would make it much easier to file lawsuits against the United States in international court or against U.S. companies in federal court, Goldberg said in an interview.
This will be the first climate change case the IACHR has heard, and likely the first of its kind anywhere else, he said.
Despite the urgency of the issue, Inuit are being very cautious and will not file their official petition until late in the northern hemisphere spring or in early summer, he said. A ruling could take several years.
''While the Inuit hope to raise public awareness about how they are being hurt by climate change, they also hope other groups will take similar actions,'' added Goldberg.
Millions of people in mountainous areas, low-lying island and coastal regions, and other vulnerable parts of the world will soon face other similar threats created by global warming, he said.
In December a leading climate scientist and British legal expert wrote in the journal Nature: ''Litigation in relation to greenhouse gas emissions is increasingly likely, and has already started.''
Scientific evidence is now strong enough to link climate change to extreme weather events such as the 2003 European heat wave that was implicated in the deaths of more than 14,000 people in France alone, according to the article.
Climate change lawsuits are already popping up within the United States. Eight states and New York City filed a lawsuit against five U.S. power companies for their contribution to climate change.
A coalition of U.S. environmental organizations announced on Dec. 5 that they are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its continued failure to take action on global warming.
Legal wrangling aside, ICC chief Watt-Cloutier wants the people of the United States to understand that ''what they do on a daily basis is having a direct impact on a people, a culture, and a way of life... The Arctic is melting.''
* Stephen Leahy is a Tierramérica contributor.