Global Warming Is a Human Rights Issue

Instead of approaching global climate change as a strictly environmental issue, the Inuit are aligning themselves with those who see the problem as a human rights violation.

Published: 30-Mar-2005

LAND, Ore. - The fur ruff on Shelia Watt-Cloutier's hooded jacket glistened under a brilliant Arctic sun, and the warmth in the golden guard hairs almost seemed to melt the expanse of stark white sea ice on which she stood. She wasn't too thrilled about the sunny day ... and that's an understatement.

''The U.S. and others feel they can continue business as usual, when our entire way of life as we know it may end in my grandson's lifetime,'' Watt-Cloutier said.

Referring to global warming, the elected chairman of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the quasi-governmental group recognized by the United Nations to represent the 155,000 seal-hunting people scattered around the Arctic, added, ''We have been trying to find ways in which to put ourselves on the political map in a world where you have a powerful country like the United States that is staunchly standing for the status quo and does not want to change its economic policies and move away from dependence on oil, gas and fossil fuels.''

Instead of approaching global climate change as a strictly environmental issue, the Inuit are aligning themselves with those who see the problem as a human rights violation. Since 300 scientists fingered ''human influences'' as the culprit in Arctic warming in an assessment released in November 2004, the Inuit started working with the nonprofit

San Francisco law firm, EarthJustice. In cooperation with attorneys there, the Inuit are petitioning the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights over violations perpetrated by the United States.

Once the commission, the investigative arm of the Organization of American States, receives the petition, ''it will go forward to the United States, which is the respondent,'' said EarthJustice's managing attorney for international programs, Martin Wagner. ''The Inuit are arguing that because the U.S. is responsible for 25 percent or more of the greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to this climate change, the U.S. has an international obligation to prevent these human rights violations.''

After it hears testimony from both sides, the commission - according to The New York Times, ''one of the world's most authoritative bodies on human rights'' - will make a determination which, while not legally binding, is expected to have significant impact in terms of potential lawsuits and diplomatic relations. On the court room front, word has it that the U.S. might have serious worries. Christopher Horner, lawyer for the Cooler Heads Coalition (the industry-financed group opposed to cutting emissions), said that ''the planets are aligned very poorly.''

Two climate treaties are in place: one from 1992 that requires no emissions cuts, and the Kyoto Protocol with pledges of signatories to cut greenhouse gas emissions 5.2 percent by 2012. The Bush administration has rejected the Kyoto agreement on the grounds that it would be too costly and unfairly penalize industrial nations. This on-again, off-again stance by the U.S. - the world's top polluter - leaves the country particularly vulnerable to lawsuits.

Watt-Cloutier dearly hopes that's the case inasmuch as the U.S., at least under the Bush administration, has consistently demonstrated its unwillingness to act otherwise. ''We have a challenge on our hands. How do 155,000 Inuit of the world defend themselves in a world of billions of people, and how do we make this a real people issue?'' said Watt-Cloutier.

''One of the things that people cannot fully understand or appreciate is the actual power of the hunt and hunting culture. People think, 'Oh, they are just killing animals.' But when we go out on the land and teach our children to hunt, it's not just about aiming the gun and skinning the seal. It is also teaching courage and patience and how not to be impulsive and how to use sound judgment.''

Courage and patience; not being impulsive and using sound judgment. If there were ever lessons the world's greatest capitalist nation needed, they surely must revolve around these virtues. Virtues that in a culture devoted to profit and loss and increasing consumption seem to get lost in the din of the marketplace.

Can 155,000 souls from the frozen North might hold the U.S.'s feet to the fire long enough for lessons to sink in? If so, Watt-Cloutier's grandson may get a chance to hunt on the sea ice in the environment of his forbearers. One can only hope.

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