The Inuit are the miners' canary of the global warming debacle and they
know it. Judging by what they are experiencing in their northern world,
what is coming to the rest of us in other latitudes will be hugely
life-altering for all and catastrophic for many. Not surprisingly, once
again the year that has ended, 2005, was the warmest year in more than 100
years. This has huge and dire consequences for the world. The Inuit are
fighting back with vigor. They want the world, and particularly the United
States, to pay attention to this horrific global reality.
In December, an officer of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference petitioned the
Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to oppose
the climate change "caused by the United States of America" that is
destroying their ecosystem and way of life.
The commission was created by the Organization of American States in 1959
and is well-respected for its record of human rights protection.
The Inuit petition, presented and championed by ICC Chairman Sheila
Watt-Cloutier, points directly at human rights violated by "global warming
caused by greenhouse gas emissions from the United States of America."
Watt-Cloutier, who grew up driving dogsleds and helping her family in
hunting and fishing activities, pointed out: "Climate change is amplified
in the Arctic, which is a sort of regional 'barometer' of climate change
impacts." She represents internationally the 155,000 Inuit who live in
Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Chukotka in the far east of the Russian
The Inuit of the circumpolar region are increasingly organized. Not long
ago, Inuit from Chukotka were not allowed out of the Soviet Union to attend
ICC meetings; thus, for two decades, two chairs sat empty at ICC meetings.
As the ideological confrontation in the Arctic collapsed along with the
Soviet Union, cooperation has led to visa-free Inuit travel between
Provideniya in Chukotka and Nome in Alaska.
Watt-Cloutier's 163-page ICC petition relies upon the traditional knowledge
of 63 named Inuit hunters and elders from northern Canada and Alaska as
well as scientific research under the peer review process. The petition
makes use of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a major study that was
chaired by Bob Corell of Harvard University and released in 2004. The ACIA
pointed out "climate change is happening now, it is getting worse, it is
causing environmental change, and northerners are trying to adapt to it
already." (The ACIA is available at www.acia.uaf.edu.)
More than 300 scientists from 15 countries and six indigenous peoples'
organizations worked on the 2004 ACIA report, which also concludes that the
very vulnerable Arctic is "experiencing some of the most rapid and severe
climate change on earth."
Not wanting to "become a footnote to globalization," Watt-Cloutier declared
that, "climate change is destroying our environment and eroding our
In the ACIA report, Inuit hunters and elders provide the following
* Melting permafrost causing beach slumping and increased coastal erosion;
* Longer sea ice-free seasons;
* New species of birds and fish -- barn owls, robins, pin-tailed ducks and
salmon -- arriving in the region;
* Invasion of mosquitoes and blackflies;
* Unpredictable sea ice conditions; and
* Melting glaciers creating torrents in place of streams.
Among the key conclusions of the ACIA: "Marine species dependent on sea
ice, including polar bears, ice-living seals, walrus and some marine birds
are very likely to decline, with some species facing extinction."
Without these animals, goes the second conclusion, Inuit hunting and
attendant cultural lifeways, which are already endangered, will be
destroyed. Watt-Cloutier makes a strong case for the Inuit hunting culture
as a human right of her people which, she asserts, is often misunderstood.
"Some people in far-away countries feel that hunting is sure to disappear.
They are wrong and it is the job of ICC to defend and promote the culture
and economy of Inuit ... The wisdom of the land and process of the hunt
teaches young Inuit to be patient, courageous, tenacious, bold under
pressure, reflective, to withstand stress, to focus and carry out a plan to
achieve a goal."
The United States is named directly because is the "largest emitter of
greenhouse gases and it refuses to join the international effort to reduce
emissions," the petition states. It requests that the commission declare
the United States in violation of rights affirmed in various international
covenants, including the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties
The Inuit petition asks the commission to request the United States adopt
mandatory limits to greenhouse gas emissions. It requests U.S. cooperation
"with the community of nations" to ameliorate climate change impacts. It
would oblige the United States to "work with Inuit to develop a plan to
help Inuit adapt to unavoidable impacts of climate change, and to take into
account the impact of its emissions on the Arctic and Inuit before
approving all major government actions."
We agree with S. James Anaya, law professor at University of Arizona, who
sees the Inuit petition as "an opportunity for the Commission to make a
significant contribution to the further evolution of international human
rights law." We honor and recommend the ICC for using every means at its
possession to struggle for their peoples' right to be who they are in the
world. They are courageous to stand up for themselves, and for us.
Watt-Cloutier, who recently won an international "Sophie Prize" for her
work on sustainable development, asserts that the ICC petition "is not
about money, it is about encouraging the United States to join the world
community to agree to deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions needed to
protect the Arctic environment and Inuit culture and, ultimately, the