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Getting the Inuit Message on Global Warming to the World: Confessions of a Press Guy

By Brian Smith

As the Earthjustice international press secretary, I admit throwing a global warming press conference in below freezing Montreal was a tough sell. But the mission of our trip to the UN Conference on Climate Change was important -- to spread the word about the struggle of the Arctic's Inuit people to deal with the environmental and cultural impacts of climate change.

With the help of Earthjustice's international program, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an international body that represents the Inuit, filed a petition on December 7, 2005 with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights seeking a ruling that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions violate Inuit human rights. The petition calls on the United States to respect its human rights obligations and take immediate action to reduce its emissions of greenhouse pollution.

Access to the UN meeting was the first hurdle. After retrieving our badges we ran the UN security gauntlet, a process that made checking into a flight look like a stroll in the park. Delegates from 190 countries mingled with UN staff, scientists, NGOs, and the world's press. With Russia's ratification of the treaty in 2005, the Kyoto Treaty was finally in effect, despite grousing from the United States and Australia.

A week of formal presentation and side events made it quite clear to everyone in attendance, the science was in, human-induced climate change is real, and it is happening now.

On December 7, we hosted the press conference announcing the petition. I was certainly nervous that the room reserved for 250 people would remain half empty. This was the largest press event I had ever pitched. My concerns were unfounded. The room not only filled to the brim with TV cameras, radio reporters, and print journalists from around the world, but reporters were crowded into the hallways outside as our room filled beyond capacity.

Ms. Watt-Cloutier explained the petition and the reasoning behind it. "This petition is about encouraging the United States of America to join the world community to agree to deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions needed to protect the Arctic environment and Inuit culture and, ultimately, the world," she said. "We must never forget that, ultimately, climate change is a matter of human rights."

For the Inuit people of the polar north, life has never been easy. For thousands of years, the Inuit have adapted to, and thrived in, a climate so harsh most of us would not survive more than a few days. But global warming is changing the landscape on which the Inuit depend for their survival.

Inuit communities from Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia are watching their environment change literally beneath their feet. Though they speak different dialects, they share a tradition of subsistence hunting and travel over ice. Inuit survival and hunting skills have been handed down from one generation to the next for millennia. But global warming is now threatening the Inuit culture and way of life.

Global warming has made the Inuit less safe in the environment in which they have thrived for ages. The weather has become unpredictable. Hunting has become more difficult due to melting sea-ice and changes in animal migration patterns. The snow no longer makes strong igloos. Hunters fall through ice in places where it has always been safe to walk. Homes are tumbling into the angry ocean in areas once protected by ice sheets. Buildings and roads crumble as permafrost melts beneath them. Villages are losing contact with one another because the ice that once served as roads has turned to thick mud.

The petition focuses on the United States because, with only five percent of the world's population, the U.S. emits nearly one-quarter of the world's greenhouse gases and refuses to join international efforts to make significant reductions. The petition asks the Commission to declare the United States in violation of rights affirmed in the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and other instruments of international law.

The petition also requests that the Commission hold hearings in northern Canada and Alaska to investigate the harm caused to Inuit by global warming; recommend that the United States adopt mandatory limits to its emissions of greenhouse gases and co-operate with the international community; and encourage the United States to work with the Inuit to develop a plan to help them adapt to climate change.

We should heed the message and data the Inuit are now sharing with us. Their action should be viewed not as an act of confrontation, but of generosity, and a wake up call to the human species.

Please read this impressive document for yourself and thank you for your continued support that made it possible.

Brian Smith is the Western/International Press Secretary for Earthjustice