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Inuits to Sue U.S. Over Global Warming

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Inuit leaders are seeking a ruling from an international court that the U.S. government’s position on global warming is threatening their existence as a people. We speak with the managing attorney at Earth Justice. [includes rush transcript]

The Inuit, about 155,000 seal-hunting peoples scattered around the Arctic, plan to seek a ruling from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the United States, by contributing substantially to global warming, is threatening their existence.

The Inuit plan is part of a broader shift in the debate over human-caused climate change evident among participants in the 10th round of international talks taking place in Buenos Aires aimed at averting dangerous human interference with the climate system. The commission is an investigative arm of the Organization of American States and has no enforcement powers. But a declaration that the United States has violated the Inuit’s rights could create the foundation for an eventual lawsuit, either against the United States in an international court or against American companies in federal court.

Last month, an assessment of Arctic climate change by 300 scientists for the eight countries with Arctic territory, including the United States, concluded that “human influences” are now the dominant factor.

  • Martin Wagner, managing attorney for international programs at Earth Justice.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Martin Wagner, who is managing attorney for the international programs at Earth Justice. Welcome to Democracy Now!

MARTIN WAGNER: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what the Inuit are charging?

MARTIN WAGNER: Well, as you suggested, the Inuit — the Inuits’ entire lives and culture, their ability to continue to survive, depends upon the ice that has existed in the Arctic for thousands of years, and has supported their culture and their way of life. And scientists are now in agreement that climate change caused predominantly by human influences is causing that ice to melt and causing other impacts to the Inuit way of life. The Inuit can no longer depend upon the ice to get to seals that they depend on for sources of food. They can no longer travel on that ice from place to place to communicate between villages. They can no longer use the ice to build igloos that they depend on when they’re out hunting. Just a whole slew of impacts that have already occurred and are going to continue to get worse. So, the Inuit are recognizing these impacts, and looking at them and saying these impacts violate our fundamental rights, recognized in international law, to maintain our culture, to health, to have a means of subsistence that we can depend on, and other rights. And they are now seeking recognition of those violations at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how does this proceed forward?

MARTIN WAGNER: Well, we are putting together a petition that will go to the Inter-American Commission. The Commission will receive the petition. It will forward it to the United States, which is the respondent, the Inuit are arguing that because the United States is responsible for 25% or more of the greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to this climate change, that the United States has an international obligation to prevent these human rights violations. So, the Commission would forward the petition to the United States, and they would then begin a period of hearing testimony from the Inuit and from lawyers speaking on their behalf, hearing responses from the United States and then ultimately leading to some sort of a determination by the Inter-American Commission about whether this constitutes a violation of human rights. And you rightly noted that the Commission then does not have the authority to order the United States to take any particular action. But the finding by this Commission, which is one of the world’s most authoritative bodies on the question of human rights, can have great impact. You mentioned some of them in terms of potential support for lawsuits that would be based on international law, but further than — beyond that, diplomatic efforts by governments around the world are frequently based upon concerns about human rights. So that the many governments around the world now that are — that have already expressed frustration with the United States for failing to participate in global negotiations, and taking action globally to reduce climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Not signing on to Kyoto.

MARTIN WAGNER: For example, right. Those governments will be strengthened and empowered by an authoritative conclusion about human rights implications of climate change to be able to take stronger action with respect to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Martin Wagner, I want to thank you very much for joining us. Martin Wagner is managing attorney for international programs at Earth Justice. Again at, we will link to information about Earth Justice and the Inuit’s case.

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