The Inuits are an indigenous people who have traditionally occupied large areas the Artic Circle in Canada, Alaska, Russia and Greenland. They describe their culture as a ‘hunting culture’: it is inextricably linked to the marine and terrestrial animals of the circum polar region. The Arctic is the first global region to be seriously affected by global warming: the retreat of the polar ice cap has been well documented, and is now thought to be accelerating. The impact of this on the Inuit people is already serious and is likely to be catastrophic. Recently they launched a remarkable action with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, arguing that the loss of the habitat in which their culture is embedded was a human rights issue–a pioneering idea which the Commission found it difficult to come to terms with.
The plight of the Inuits brings into focus the differential impacts of global warming. Global warming has to do with the physical environment; its impacts are world-wide, and are already affecting vast regions; and it is being caused primarily by the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries (by which is meant, industrialised and industrialising).
Under these conditions, it is clear that the most immediately vulnerable to these impacts are indigenous peoples, whose cultures have kept their life patterns in close connection to the physical environment. They are vulnerable both physically and culturally. The peoples of the Pacific Islands and the tribes of Saharan Africa are facing immediate threats, of sea-level rise and rapidly advancing desertification. Projections from the CSIRO make it clear that the desert Australian Aboriginal peoples will face similar threats, with average temperatures likely to climb up to 5 or 6 degrees centigrade in the inland. Yet indigenous people have contributed almost nothing to the greenhouse gases that drive global warming, because of their small population sizes and their low carbon lifestyles.
The Inuit are therefore entirely correct in characterising this as a human rights issue. Already it has gone far beyond the ability of the emerging international framework in environmental law to deal with. Global warming is not primarily a scientific or an economic issue, although it is still being framed that way. It has to do fundamentally with human values, expressed in modes of living and in the relations between the earth’s peoples. The historical record in these areas has been deplorable. There is no indication at all that the developed nations have any interest in re-evaluating the values that underpin their carbon saturated lifestyles. The acceptance of the differential impact on the poorer countries, particular the indigenous peoples, of the world is the result.
New ways of developing cooperative and collaborative social and political structures, based on fundamental values of a more universal kind, would seem to be a pre-requisite to addressing the global warming threat. One can only state the fact.
Report from The Guardian link here.