Last week the global climate change meeting in Montreal wrapped up with a remarkable agreement to continue negotiating, but the threat to the Inuit also gained many headlines. The primary opponent to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, the United States, not only opposes the Kyoto approach to setting mandatory targets for cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, it also opposed, during the conference, any language that would allow fresh discussions on the issue.
With the delegates working through the night Friday and into Saturday morning, the U.S. delegation finally agreed to language that would allow future meetings on the issue, though only with the escape clause that any new talks will be “open and nonbinding” and that such talks “will not open any negotiations leading to new commitments.” Developing countries, which are exempt from the Kyoto targets, also signaled a willingness to perhaps consider setting targets for reducing emissions.
The diplomat who headed the European Union delegation, Margaret Beckett from Britain, declared the compromise a success because, in her opinion, there had been a significant, but subtle, shift from obstructionism to cooperation behind the scenes. She commented that, “for those who actually take part in these negotiations this is a substantial achievement.”
The Inuit, one of the major minority groups that bear the brunt of global climate change, announced a year ago that they would bring action against the U.S. for its role in opposing effective measures to cut back on emissions that cause climate change. During last week’s conference, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) and numerous other groups unveiled their petition alleging that the human rights and livelihoods of the Inuit are being violated by the U.S. refusal to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) filed the petition on behalf of the ICC with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The lead attorney for the CIEL, Donald Greenberg, told BBC News that “the Inuit are bearing the brunt” of the problems caused by the American refusal to agree to formal controls on greenhouse gas emissions. If the Commission finds that the U.S. is violating the “rights [of the Inuit] affirmed in the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights,” the matter could be referred to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, or conceivably to American courts.
Unveiling the petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was probably the major media event for the Inuit during the Montreal conference. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the President of ICC who has led the campaign to put a “human face” over the scientific studies, technical data, and diplomatic wrangling, said the petition is pro-people, not anti-American.
“I think this is really going to help to change the debate from technology to people,” she said. “This petition is about opening this issue of climate change to humanity and human rights.” Referring to the Commission on Human Rights, she said “we will invite them to come to the Arctic and see for themselves the areas that are more affected, and at the end of the day declare that indeed that the inaction [by] the U.S. to address this issue is a violation of human rights.”
She admits that the petition is primarily an attempt to force the world to see climate change in “high moral terms.” She hopes it will educate the public and embarrass the U.S. government into taking action.
With their petition finally filed, the media-savvy Inuit staged various other events during the conference to highlight their cause—the rapid destruction of their entire way of life. Jose Kusugak, the president of the group Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, told journalists “climate change is a reality in the Arctic. We are already seeing frightening impacts.” He said that if he returned to the site of his birth 55 years ago on May 2, in an igloo on Repulse Bay, there might not be enough snow to build another snow house.
Kusugak spoke at an event that launched a book about Inuit perceptions of climate change. The Inuit, he maintained, are the “global environmental experts” because of their familiarity with the land. “If anyone knows about climate change, it’s people who live their lives outside,” he said.
He made very concrete points about the ways that climate change is altering their lives, and he introduced four Inuit elders from various Arctic regions who pointed out the consequences of shoreline erosion, thinning ice, high winds, and warm weather.
Muctar Akomalik, from Arctic Bay in Nunavut, pointed out that the lack of snow, caused by unusually harsh winds, forces them to take tents when they travel since they can no longer count on building the traditional snow houses. They also need to own all–terrain vehicles in addition to snowmobiles, since they cannot count on having enough snow for winter travel.
Pauline Anderson, from Northwest River in Nunatsiavut, expressed her concern that the increased amount of open water posed significant dangers to people when they travel. People have lost their lives due to the thinning ice and open water conditions.
John Keogak from Sachs Harbor also spoke about the changes that climate change is causing in the Arctic. Some of the “devastating” changes he mentioned are that sea coasts are eroding and buildings are collapsing.
News sources around the world covered these stories about the destruction of the Inuit culture and way of life by global climate change.