Climate Change and Human Rights
Human Rights Dialogue: "Environmental Rights" (Spring 2004)
April 22, 2004
For millennia Inuit have lived in northern and western Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, and Chukotka in the far east of the Russian Federation. Now numbering about 155,000, the Inuit people of today are navigating profound social and economic change as globalization reaches northward. While climate change remains an abstract concept and even myth to some, it is already having devastating consequences for Inuit and others inhabiting these regions.
Much has been written and said about the weak confidence in climate change science. Yet the results of an Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), authorized by the ministers of foreign affairs to the Artic Council — a body comprised of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States — demonstrate that, for Inuit, climate change is very real. The ACIA, to be presented to ministers in November 2004, projects massive thinning and depletion of sea-ice, with the result that ice-inhabiting marine species — seals, walrus, and polar bear — will be “pushed to extinction” by 2070-2090. Inuit hunters are already adapting to environmental changes, particularly to the sea-ice regime and to changes in the distribution and abundance of harvested species. As stated in the report, many Inuit are experiencing growing difficulty in predicting weather and environmental conditions. Hunters have even perished by falling through the sea-ice when traveling to hunting territories across formerly safe areas.
Clearly, global warming is threatening the ability of Inuit to survive as a hunting-based culture. Seals, whales, walrus, caribou, and other species provide highly nutritious food, and provide a deep connection with the natural environment. Hunting lies at the core of Inuit culture, teaching such key values as courage, patience, tenacity, and boldness under pressure — qualities that are required for both the modern and the traditional world in which the Inuit live.
On the basis of the ACIA’s findings, which represent a consensus of the scientific community, the Inuit are taking the bold step of seeking accountability for a problem in which it is difficult to pin responsibility on any one actor. However, Inuit believe there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the failure to take remedial action by those nations most responsible for the problem does constitute a violation of their human rights — specifically the rights to life, health, culture, means of subsistence, and property.
In order to support this claim, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), an organization established in 1977 to defend and promote the Inuit way of life, plans to petition the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The petition will seek a declaration in international law that the erosion and potential destruction of the Inuit way of life brought about by climate change resulting from emission of greenhouse gases amounts to a violation of the fundamental human rights of Inuit. It will draw on the compelling combination of official science and traditional knowledge within the Artic Climate Impact Assessment to focus political attention on the Arctic and Inuit dimensions to this global issue. The ICC’s aim is to inform and convince governments (particularly the United States) and NGOs of the need for concerted and coordinated global action to pre-empt the ACIA’s dire projection.
The ICC got the idea of petitioning the Commission from the compelling scientific evidence of the Artic Climate Impact Assessment. The ACIA, which covers a wide range of social, economic, health, and ecosystem effects, is the world’s most detailed and comprehensive regional study of climate change. It is being prepared by more than 250 authors from 15 countries and includes the input of indigenous peoples, Inuit among them. Based on the Assessment and the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, developed out of the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the ICC has drawn five conclusions: First, the culture, economy, and way of life of Inuit is under threat from human-induced climate change; second, emissions of greenhouse gases worldwide are increasing, notwithstanding international agreements to the contrary; third, coordinated action is required by all states pursuant to global agreement(s) to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases; fourth, states and NGOs are fundamentally ignorant of the human and cultural effects of climate change in the Arctic; and fifth, states largely discount Arctic concerns in their political positions internationally and policy prescriptions domestically.
While Inuit are few in number, the ICC has already demonstrated its ability to affect international negotiations. From 1998 to 2000 the ICC influenced environmental negotiations that resulted in the signing of the Stockholm Convention in 2001 to reduce emissions of persistent organic pollutants that end up in the Arctic. During the process, the ICC drew attention to a 1997 Artic Council assessment of Artic contaminants. The convention that resulted, which gained entry into force in 2004, singles out the Arctic and its indigenous peoples in a specific reference in its preamble
Inuit have an earned reputation for adapting to changing circumstances, and it is generally accepted in northern communities that accommodating some measure of climate change is unavoidable. Nevertheless, the projected magnitude of climate change would stretch this adaptive ability to the breaking point. The destruction of the age-old hunting economy presages destruction of the very culture of Inuit. The seriousness of the issue means that Inuit have to use every available avenue to bring their perspectives to the attention of decision-makers, particularly those in the United States, who have the power to reverse this dangerous course.