Global warming is a human rights issue

Jean Johnson
3/30/05

PORTLAND, 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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