This BBC story, “US CO2 emissions ‘violate human rights’,” describes how a group of Inuit made their arguments pursuant to a 2005 complaint filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, calling for limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The claim resulted from a four-year study, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, in which hundreds of scientists participated.
Even though this particular claim is certain to go nowhere (the US has not ratified the convention that the Inuit are using to file their action), expect more actions of this sort, and other creative legal and political strategies, in which various populations assert climate-change-related damages caused by emissions elsewhere.
The closest precedent is suits filed in the Northeast against utilities whose air pollution produced acid rain and smog. A 2004 New York Times article, “New York and 3 Other States Join Against Air Pollution,” describes one such effort (and indicates that the results of such suits have been mixed). As you will read, the legal theory hinges on whether the utilities are indeed complying with existing law. The Inuit effort, arguing a human rights violation, is by comparison, quite a stretch:
New York and three adjoining states began legal action yesterday against a Pennsylvania power company, accusing it of emitting air pollution that drifts across state lines and worsens smog, produces acid rain and causes respiratory problems for people in the metropolitan region.
The litigation seeks to force the company to install antipollution equipment in five coal-fired electric generating plants that federal environmental officials were investigating until the Bush administration changed its enforcement policy for the Clean Air Act last year.
After the federal government announced plans to drop 50 investigations of possible pollution violations in November, Eliot Spitzer, the New York attorney general, obtained the government’s comprehensive files and said he and the attorneys general of Connecticut and New Jersey would carry on the enforcement effort through litigation….
The action represents the latest volley in the continuing struggle between Northeast states and utility companies concerning high levels of pollution that drift eastward. It also underscores the rising frustration among some Northeast officials who believe that the Bush administration is hampering environmental enforcement….
The officials’ case focuses on the definition of maintenance. Longstanding federal rules require new or substantially modified coal-burning power plants to use the most advanced, and most expensive, pollution-control devices available.
The officials maintain that Allegheny made major modifications to the five plants but classified the work as routine maintenance to avoid installing the pollution controls required by the regulations….
In August, a federal judge ruled that Ohio Edison, a unit of FirstEnergy, had mislabeled extensive renovations on several coal plants as ”routine maintenance” and unlawfully avoided installing upgraded pollution controls. The ruling buttressed the states’ position.
But in the same month last year, a federal judge in North Carolina offered a different interpretation of maintenance that seemed to favor the companies’ position. In that case, involving Duke Energy, the judge interpreted ”routine maintenance” broadly enough to have included what federal regulators had considered major modifications.
Now from the BBC story:
A delegation of Inuit has travelled to Washington to argue that the US government’s climate change policies violate human rights.
The group has filed a legal petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, demanding that the US limits its emission of greenhouse gases.
The Inuit say pollution is contributing to melting ice and thawing permafrost, affecting their way of life.
Temperatures in the Arctic are rising at about twice the global average.
Representatives for Inuit communities living within the Arctic Circle presented evidence to the Commission on Thursday in an attempt to link human-induced climate change to international human rights.
The hearing is the latest stage in the legal process, which began in December 2005 when the petition was filed.
The delegation is being led by Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a former chairwoman of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, a representative body for Inuit in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia….
The document urges the commission to recommend that the “United States adopt mandatory limits to its emissions of greenhouse gases”.
It also asks for the US to work within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”….
The action was brought against the US following the publication of an extensive scientific study of the Arctic region.
The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment involved hundreds of scientists from all over the globe and took four years to compile.
Among its findings, the assessment said that increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would “contribute to additional Arctic warming of about 4-7C (7-13F), about twice the global average, over the next 100 years”.
It also projected that shorter and warmer winters would affect sea ice cover, resulting in changes to animal behaviour and Inuit access to food sources.
Addressing the commission, Mrs Watt-Coultier said: “The ice is not only our roads but also our supermarket.
“Deteriorating ice conditions imperil Inuit in many ways,” she added. “Ice pans used for hunting at the floe edge are more likely to detach from the land fast ice and take hunters away.
“Many hunters have been killed or seriously injured after falling through ice that was traditionally known to be safe.”….
“It is destroying lands and ecosystems to which indigenous cultures throughout the hemisphere are tied. In order to survive, [they] are thus forced to assimilate with other cultures in ways and on a schedule that they have not chosen.”
If the petition is successful, the commission could refer the US administration to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for a legal judgement.
Both the commission and the court work within the framework of the American Convention on Human Rights.
However, the US has not ratified the convention, so a ruling in favour of the Inuit would be largely symbolic.