In the Arctic, ice is a central element of culture and survival; the indigenous Inuit people rely on being able to traverse enormous ice shelves to hunt, gather food, and communicate. For years, the United States has been the greatest culprit of carbon emissions that contribute to rising global warming temperatures. For Inuit peoples, rising temperatures jeopardize culture as significantly as it endangers ecological environments. Thinning ice shelves, shorter freeze periods, more rapid melt periods, and an overall decrease in ice surface area directly impact traditional ways of life for the Inuit people, as such effects cripple their ability to travel, an integral component to their cultural survival. Further, populations of polar bears, seals, walruses, and other Arctic wildlife that the Inuit people depend upon for survival also face impending destruction as their habitats slowly melt into the encroaching and warming sea.
In 2005, CIEL and Earthjustice supported Inuk woman and Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference Sheila Watt-Cloutier when she presented a petition to the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The petition, Violations Resulting from Global Warming Caused by the United States, presented on behalf of herself, 62 other named individuals, and all other affected Inuit populations of the American and Canadian Arctic asserted that the IACHR was obligated to act on issues of climate control because, as exemplified in the circumstances of the Inuit people, global warming directly impedes human rights by disrupting a culture.
The effort by the Inuit before the IACHR helped broaden and re-focus the terms of the climate change debate. Climate change has had a devastating impact on the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic. Though the IACHR did not proceed with the petition, the case established the critical linkage between climate change and human rights, and contributed the IACHR’s “thematic hearing” in 2006, which investigated the connection between climate change and human rights.