Is U.S. Global Warming Pollution Violating Human Rights Law?

While the rest of the world debated global warming, Roy Nageak watched the ice melt and recede in his Arctic backyard. Nageak, an Inuit, lives in the northernmost settlement in Alaska. Growing up, he recalls that there was "always ice."

"There were great pads of ice that were solid and many feet thick," Nageak said.

But Nageak and other Inuit, who live a world away from burning smokestacks and traffic jams are among the first victims of global warming. And human rights groups say the Inuit case mirrors the plight of other populations around the globe who are expected to face the ramifications of climate change sooner, and more harshly, than the countries most responsible for the gases linked to global warming.

"Now, we are lucky to get four feet of ice because of what is happening outside our region," Nageak said. "It's a lifestyle that is prevalent in another society that is so far away from us, and it's affecting our way of life."

A 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment by international scientists found that "climate changes are being experienced particularly intensely in the Arctic" and that the "Inuit face major threats to their food security and hunting cultures."

Nageak joined 62 other Inuit in Alaska and Canada in 2005 to hold the world's most-notorious polluter accountable. They filed a petition against the United States with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights -- one of the bodies set up to promote and protect human rights in the Americas.

The petition argues that the impacts of climate change caused by the U.S. violate the human rights of the Inuit. The Inuit say their livelihoods, their spiritual life and their cultural identity are threatened because of the greenhouse-gas emissions of the United States and the government's failure to curb the damage. "We offer our testimony as a warning to humanity that while global warming has hit Arctic peoples first, changes are coming for everyone."

Last week, the Commission held a one-hour hearing to investigate the relationship between human rights and climate change in North and South America.

In a letter to the Commission, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, former director of the Inuit Circumpolar Council leading the Inuit charge, listed many of the ways climate change has jeopardized the Inuit way of life: "Because of the loss of ice and snow, communities have become isolated from one another; hunting, travel and other subsistence activities have become more dangerous or impossible; drinking-water sources have been jeopardized; [and] many coastal communities are already threatened or being forced to relocate."

In a statement to the press, Watt-Cloutier said, "We offer our testimony as a warning to humanity that, while global warming has hit Arctic peoples first, changes are coming for everyone."

Although the Inuit are the first indigenous population to make such a formal claim, human-rights activists say that as the impacts of climate change increase, so too will its toll on human life. And with it, they warn, will come populations seeking redress from the world's big polluters. "As the causal link becomes clearer ... between climate change and specific injuries, we're going to see people that are injured looking for justice somewhere."

"I don't think there's any doubt we'll see more of this," said David Hunter, a senior advisor of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). "As the causal link becomes clearer... between climate change and specific injuries, we're going to see people that are injured looking for justice somewhere." CIEL, along with the law firm Earthjustice, worked with the Inuit to submit the petition.


Growing up in the Arctic, Roy Nageak's father taught him how to fish and hunt on the ice. Nageak always expected to do the same for his son, but climate change has made the ice thinner and less predictable, and the animals and fish they hunt more elusive.

"Now I have a son who is 18 years old ... and I need to let him learn how to be in harmony with nature," Nageak said. "But without the ice, the knowledge that was passed on to me from my father ... it's not there."

Nageak said that he is frustrated that he "has no control" over how the rest of the world, particularly the U.S. government, chooses to operate. Washington has refused to join international commitments to address climate change, and it has offered only modest attempts to curb greenhouse-gas emissions while making plans for more coal-burning power plants, a major source of carbon dioxide.

The US State Department declined to comment.

"It really is an issue of equity," said Michelle Leighton, director of the Human Rights Program at the University of San Francisco School of Law.

"At the global level, the wealthiest countries have caused the greatest harm and the poorest -- the small island-nation states or populations in the south of India, or the Inuit -- are going to suffer because of the profits made by the wealthier part of the world."

A 2006 government-commissioned report in the United Kingdom called the Stern Review predicted that even if global warming is kept to two-degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or lower, there will still be "serious impacts" on human life and the environment. For instance, the report forecast the disappearance of drinking water in the South American Andes and parts of Southern Africa and the Mediterranean, and up to 10 million people affected by yearly coastal flooding.

Another 2006 report by the Working Group on Climate Change and Development, a coalition that includes the World Wildlife Federation and Greenpeace, documented that climate change is already affecting countries in South America. For instance, the group explained how glacial melt documented in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia will threaten water supplies and put populations at risk.

Yifat Susskind, communications director of the human-rights group Madre, said indigenous groups are most vulnerable to climate change. "A lot of ancestral territories are some of the most impacted, in part, because they are some of the most delicate ecosystems that we know, and also because their economies, cultures and spiritual systems are very directly rooted to the territory that they live on," Susskind said.

Susskind also said that because of the way many societies are structured, women will suffer most from the impacts of climate change. "Whenever you have a situation where resources are made scarce -- arable land, clean water, sufficient food -- it is usually the women who sacrifice," she said. "If there's not enough food, it is usually the women and girls who are going to eat last and least."

A Human Rights Framework

The Inuit petition claims that the United States has violated human rights affirmed in the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and the American Convention on Human Rights. The petition is urging the Inter-American Commission recommend that the United States adopt mandatory emissions limits and cooperate with the international community on climate change.

The Inuit are also asking that the United States help them adapt to their changing environment.

Susskind noted that the Inter-American Commission does "not have any teeth" and can only make recommendations. Nevertheless, Susskind and others agree that a decision by the Commission linking the U.S.'s greenhouse-gas emissions with human-rights violations would still set an important precedent and give the international community another tool to pressure the United States over global warming.

Susskind and Leighton also said the decision could possibly be used to bolster lawsuits in the United States. For instance, in 2006, California sued six car companies in an attempt to hold them accountable for their contributions to global warming and its effects on the state's environment, economy, agriculture and public health. A hearing is scheduled for March 6.

Hunter said linking climate change with human rights helps to put a human face on the problem. "For many years, the debate around climate change has been a rather obtuse and almost theoretical debate about sea-level rise and temperature change," he said. "But it's sort of antiseptic until you put it in the terms of impacts on real people, real cultures and their way of living -- and thus their rights."

Should the Commission recognize the human rights aspect of climate change, Leighton said it would also send a powerful message to the public. "The American public needs to be aware that what we're doing [to the environment] doesn't just have some far away environmental impact that maybe our grandchildren will never see," she said. "It's here. It's on our continent. It's in our neighbors' backyard, and we are the cause. And we need to change our way of life."


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