Inuit sue US over climate policy

People living in the Arctic have filed a legal petition against the US government, saying its climate change policies violate human rights. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) claims the US is failing to control emissions of greenhouse gases, damaging livelihoods in the Arctic.

Its petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights demands that the US limits its emissions.

Temperatures in the Arctic are rising at about twice the global average.

The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a vast scientific study which took four years to compile, found that the region will warm by four to seven degrees Celsius by the end of the century, with summer sea ice disappearing within 60 years.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that impacts are already being felt, with seasonal melting leading to the collapse of buildings and a reduction in some fish stocks.

The petition, filed on behalf of the ICC by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), says US policies on greenhouse gas emissions are a major factor driving these changes.

“The United States is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter; it has turned its back on the Kyoto Protocol and has not put in place measures to limit its emissions,” said CIEL’s senior attorney Donald Goldberg.

“The Inuit are bearing the brunt,” he told the BBC News website.

Violation of rights

The petition asks the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate the harm caused to Inuit by global warming, and to declare the US “…in violation of rights affirmed in the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and other instruments of international law.”

It also urges the Commission to rule that the US must adopt mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions and “…help Inuit adapt to unavoidable impacts of climate change.”

If the Commission rules in favour of the Inuit, it could refer the US to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for a legal judgement.

Both the Commission and the Court work within the framework of the American Convention on Human Rights.

As the US has not ratified the Convention, a ruling by the Commission would be largely symbolic; but Donald Goldberg believes that does not make it worthless.

“If the Commission finds the US has violated human rights, it’s a serious matter,” he said.

“States don’t like to be classified as violators of human rights; and in any case, there is a domestic legal mechanism called the Alien Torts Claims Act which might allow us to use a Commission judgement in national litigation.”

The petition is the latest in a series of legal or quasi-legal cases filed against the US government and others over climate change.

The US is being asked to protect coral species threatened by climate change, Australian authorities have been forced to review procedures plans for approving coal-fired power stations, while an application in Germany would force the government to declare what greenhouse gas emissions are produced by projects supported by its export credit agency.

The biggest victory for legal campaigns on climate, co-ordinated by the group Climate Justice, came in November when a Nigerian court ordered oil companies to stop “gas flaring” – burning off gas from their oil wells.

Source: BBC News