Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Litigating Global Warming

Is global warming a human rights issue? Those who live on islands vulnerable to rising sea levels think so. So do the Inuit (or Eskimos) who see in the melting of Arctic ice the disappearance of their way of life. Representatives of the Inuit plan to take the issue to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, according to the New York Times:

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.

Inuit leaders said they planned to announce the effort at the climate meeting today.

Representatives of poor countries and communities--from the Arctic fringes to the atolls of the tropics to the flanks of the Himalayas--say they are imperiled by rising temperatures and seas through no fault of their own. They are casting the issue as no longer simply an environmental problem but as an assault on their basic human rights.

The Inuit will be supported in their petition before the IACHR by Earthjustice (formerly the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund) and the Center for International Environmental Law.

Earlier this year, eight states (including California and New York) filed suit against five major utility companies in an effort to force them to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

The right to a livable environment is part of a group of third-generation rights that are increasingly being recognized in international law. If the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights agrees that Inuit rights are being violated by greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, lawsuits may follow. Eventually, courts may compel the United States to act on a matter that neither the Bush Administration nor Congress has been willing to address. It is worth recalling that the civil rights movement in the United States was jump-started by a similar strategy in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.