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Their ancient way of life is in unprecedented peril. Their very land is melting beneath their feet. Even the endless night of the Arctic winter, which should be one of nature’s most immutable constants, may be changing. It too appears to have fallen victim of the abrupt warming of the global climate which almost every one on earth – apart from the government of the United States – believes is exacerbated by the polluting industries of the modern world.
But now the 155,000 Inuit, also known as Eskimoes, scattered along the northern rim of Canada, Greenland, Alaska and Siberia, say the climate change that threatens their existence is also a violation of their human rights, and that the US, responsible for 25 per cent of the planet’s greenhouse gases, is largely responsible.
The human rights, say the Inuit are the most basic ones, the rights to life, health and property. “We’re an adaptable people, but adaptability has its limits,” says Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the head of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the group recognised by the United Nations as representing the Inuit people. “Something is bound to give, and it’s starting to give in the Arctic, and we’re sending that early warning signal to the rest of the world.”
Yesterday, at the international climate change conference in Buenos Aires, the Inuit were to make their move by announcing they would demand a ruling from the the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that as the prime source of greenhouse gas pollution, is in violation of the commission’s own norms.
The prospects for success are unclear. A Washington environmental lawyer here close to the case, says: “The question is, does what the US government is doing, or rather what it is not doing, constitutes a deprivation of human rights for the Inuit. You can argue that these deprivations are already occurring because of global warming, the loss of sea ice, the erosion of coast-lines, and the loss of hunting grounds. That raises the issue of whether there is a causal link with the activities of the US, responsible for 25 per cent of the emissions held to blame for climate change.”
The feasibility of anyone suing over global warming was raised this month by scientists who made a fresh analysis of the summer heatwave of 2003, when there was 20,000 extra deaths across Europe, many from heat-stroke and heart attacks. In a study in the journal Nature, scientists from Oxford University and the Met Office’s Hadley Centre estimated that such a heatwave is now four times more likely as a result of man-made influences on the climate. They also calculated that these human influences – carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels – were to blame for 75 per cent of the increased risk of a repeat of such a heatwave.
This means the dice has been loaded in favour of more extreme events of this kind, opening up the possibility of litigation against those who have loaded the dice, say Myles Allen of Oxford and Richard Lord, QC. “If a dice is loaded to come up six, and it comes up six, there is a clear sense in which the loading ‘helped cause’ the result,” they wrote in Nature. “If the loading doubles the chances of a six, it follows that half the sixes you get are caused by the loading.
If emissions of greenhouses gases have been found to increase the risk of a particular climate disaster by loading the dice, these might be grounds to claim compensation in a court against those deemed responsible for the emissions, they say.
The Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC) is an agency of the Organisation for American States, of which the US is a member. The headquarters are in Washington, a couple of blocks from the White House.
The Inuits have a voice in the OAS – and thus the commission – through Canada, where they have their own immense and partly autonomous territory of Nunavut, covering 1.9 million square kilometres, or 742,000 square miles, a fifth of Canada. But although the IAHRC can issue findings, recommendations, and rulings, it is not a court, and the US has predictably indicated it will not consider itself bound by anything that emerges.
But a ruling could be the basis for lawsuits. Already, a dozen US states, the city of New York and several NGOs have a tort case pending from 2002 against the federal government, charging that the Environmental Protection Agency has failed to discharge its duty to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.
If the Inuit gain a ruling that their human rights have been violated, it could form the basis of a case against the US government in an international court, or class-action suits here against the government or US energy companies, akin to the suits which have led to multibillion-dollar judgments against the tobacco companies.
Until the Iraq war, no deed of the Bush administration has caused greater international anger than the refusal of the US, the world’s largest economy and its largest polluter, to acknowledge that global warming is a problem, still less that it might be caused by human industrial activities.
But though Mr Bush quickly rejected the Kyoto treaty, his country did sign it, in the closing days of the Clinton administration. What is more, Washington also subscribed to the original 1992 framework convention on climate change. Though this latter requires no cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, the very act of signing it constitutes a recognition of climate change as a problem, legal experts contend.
And, at last month’s meeting in Reykjavik of the Arctic Council, grouping the eight countries with Arctic territory, the US agreed to a final document that called for “effective measures” to tackle a crisis which scientists, including US ones, said was predominantly caused by “human influences”. No sudden change of heart by the US is expected. Tony Blair wants the G8 summit hosted by Britain to focus on the environment in general as well as climate change, and is already trying to cajole the US into some commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But he is unlikely to elicit anything much more than words.
The State Department has said it will not react until the Inuits formally set out their case. “When they do, we will look at what they have to say,” was the cool reaction of a US spokesman in Buenos Aires, “We will consider it and respond.” But in human rights, the Inuit may have hit upon a particularly sensitive spot, where the US considers itself the global champion, bent on delivering democracy and freedom to the Islamic world and beyond. The Arctic peoples hope to make common cause with low-lying island countries in the Pacific and Indian oceans at risk from rising sea levels, caused by the melting of the polar icecaps.
Nowhere on earth is feeling the impact of global warming more directly than the Arctic. One study found that the Arctic is warming at a rate eight times faster than at any time in the past century. In Alaska, western Canada and eastern Russia, average winter temperatures have risen by 3C or 4C in the past 50 years, and they are projected to increase to between 7C and 13C over the next 100 years.
The area of the Arctic sea covered by ice naturally expands and retreats with the seasons but all the evidence indicates this floating cap of ice has gone into permanent retreat. A warmer climate has extended the period of summer melting by an extra five days every decade. Average temperatures in the Arctic are rising at 1.2C each decade. On present trends, the Arctic will have ice-free summers by the end of the century.
Measurements of the sea ice taken by sonar instruments on British and American submarines between the 1950s and 1990s have shown it has thinned by more than 40 per cent in that period. The latest estimates suggest the Arctic sea-ice has reduced from an average thickness of four metres to about 2.7 metres in just 30 years.
Satellite pictures show the surface area covered by Arctic sea ice has reduced by 4 per cent per decade. Much of the ice that remains is far thinner than it was and is liable to disappear more rapidly as temperatures rise.
Five years ago, at a conference on the Arctic organised by Greenpeace, Inuit elders told of problems caused by retreating ice and the difficulty of finding seals to hunt for food and clothing.
Benjamin Neakok, who lives in the northern Alaskan outpost of Point Lay, said the end of summer was a difficult time. “It makes it hard to hunt in fall time when the ice starts forming,” he says. “It’s kind of dangerous to be out. It’s not really sturdy. And after it freezes there’s always some open spots. Sometimes it doesn’t freeze up until January.”
Chief Gary Harrison of the Arctic Athabaskan Council, said: “Our homes are threatened by storms and melting permafrost, our livelihoods are threatened by changes to the plants and animals we harvest. Even our lives are threatened, as traditional travel routes become more dangerous.”
One Inuit community of nearly 600 people in the Alaskan barrier island of Shishmaref is faces becoming the world’s first “global warming refugees”. The permafrost on which their homes were built has melted and the ice that used to stop waves reaching the shore has nearly disappeared. Joe Braach, the headteacher of Shishmaref school, says: “When I moved here, the sea was 40ft from the house. Now it’s about 10ft.”
Storms have destroyed some of the homes and the community now has little option but to move to the mainland, at a cost of $400m (£210m).
And global warming has raised the prospect of developing the Arctic’s vast resources of oil and natural gas. It threatens to make a reality of the ancient dream of a north-west passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. By 2100, scientists have warned, species including the polar bear could be extinct.
RUPERT CORNWELL writes for the Independent.