April 2013

When Slowing Climate Change Becomes a Human Right

A new line was crossed in April, when the Arctic Athabaskan Council petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to declare that Canada is undermining the human rights of Athabaskan peoples – “First Nation” peoples whose communities stretch from northern Canada into Alaska — by poorly regulating emissions of black carbon, or soot, which contributes to Arctic warming and melting.

The petition asks the Commission to investigate and prepare a report, setting forth all the facts and applicable law, declaring that Canada’s “failure to implement adequate measures to substantially reduce its black carbon emissions violates rights affirmed in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man;” as well as to recommend Canada take steps to limit black carbon emissions in order to protect Athabaskan culture and livelihoods from the effects of rapid Arctic warming and melting.

This is not the first time climate change has been raised as a human rights issue, or a right to existence:  the small island states have appealed to the global community for nearly two decades now, arguing that their very geographic existence is threatened if warming exceeds 1.5 degrees globally.  But it is the first time the issue of black carbon – and the need to slow warming in a cryosphere region by urgently addressing emissions – has been named in such urgent terms.

Canada is not alone in the need to address black carbon, though as a regional pollutant and short-lived forcer, the Athabaskan tribes likely see more impact from Canadian emissions than any other source.  To have a real impact on Arctic warming however, all near-Arctic nations must address their black carbon (and methane) emissions, and that soon:  the Arctic already has warmed nearly two degrees.

Unfortunately, although the Arctic Council has studied this issue for over five years now, such action seems unlikely from the eight foreign ministers slated to meet in Kiruna, Sweden next month.  The focus instead remains on exploitation of resources – a headlong rush that ignores the reality of what a world that allows use of Arctic resources will look like at the lower latitudes.  Certainly the political leadership, and any sense of urgency, has been lacking around the Arctic table thus far.  Instead, the agreements signed thus far by these eight nations have focused only on exploiting the results of Arctic climate change, rather than any attempt to mitigate.  It represents a policy — and indeed as the Athabaskans assert, a human rights — failure.

One can only hope that the eight foreign ministers, seated with the six indigenous leaders representing those communities most gravely impacted by these changes, including the Athanaskans, will take a longer and saner view.

By Amy Imdieke, Global Outreach Director, and Pam Pearson, Director of ICCI.
Published May. 5, 2013      Updated Aug. 7, 2013 5:15 pm