Discussion Starters

sunrise.jpgArctic Peoples – Discussion Starters

Teachers: Use the following information to spark discussion in your classroom. Familiarize students with the events, people and organizations in the following paragraphs and then encourage students to discuss their opinions and reactions. At the bottom of this page are several example questions and suggested areas for discussion. Remind your students that discussion requires well-supported opinions, respectful listening, and sometimes agreeing to disagree.


In December 2005 the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), headed by Nobel Peace Prize nominee Sheila Watt-Cloutier. The petition outlines environmental changes impacting life in the Arctic and asserts US policies on greenhouse gas emissions are a major factor driving these changes. The petition asks the commission to declare the U.S. in violation of the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and to rule that the U.S. must limit its greenhouse gas emissions.

Read the petition here

CIEL’s senior attorney Donald Goldberg says “The United States is the world’s largest [per capita] greenhouse gas emitter; it has turned its back on the Kyoto Protocol and has not put in place measures to limit its emissions.”

Read the entire BBC article about the petition here

Goldberg and Earth Justice attorney Martin Wagner believe this petition is unique because it makes the connection between climate change and human rights and “recognizes the implications of U.S. inaction for people both [inside and outside] the United States.” An article in Grist details the potential significance of this petition.

“While human rights have usually been considered in local contexts — violations of a person’s rights by fellow citizens or one’s own government — the Inuit petition to the Inter-American Commission makes connections in a global context, arguing that the actions of one nation can violate the rights of people beyond its own borders. Goldberg and Wagner feel the case has the potential to transform the entire politics of global warming.”

shielawattcloutier02.jpgMs. Watt-Cloutier, the head of the ICC explains the motivation behind the petition:
“This petition is not about money, it is about encouraging the United States of America to join the world community to agree to deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions needed to protect the Arctic environment and Inuit culture and, ultimately, the world. We submit this petition not in a spirit of confrontation—that is not the Inuit way—but as a means of inviting and promoting dialogue with the United States of America within the context of the climate change convention. Our purpose is to educate not criticize, and to inform not condemn. I invite the United States of America to respond positively to our petition. As well, I invite governments and non-governmental organizations worldwide to support our petition and to never forget that, ultimately, climate change is a matter of human rights.” Click Here for more

The commission invited Sheila Watt-Cloutier to testify at a March 2007 hearing on climate change and human rights. You can read her testimony here.

Regardless of the outcome of the commission’s hearings, the United States would not be bound by any findings or judgments from either the commission or the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. This is because both the commission and the court work within the framework of the American Convention on Human Rights and the U.S. has not ratified the convention. This means a ruling in favor of the Inuit would be largely symbolic.


  • What is the relationship between human rights and climate change?
  • How do far do personal rights extend? Should the “right” of Americans to burn fossil fuels be limited by the implications these actions have for others?
    • React to the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man which states in Article 28, “The rights of man are limited by the rights of others, by the security of all, and by the just demands of the general welfare and the advancement of democracy.” (http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/oasinstr/zoas2dec.htm)
  • Should a country be held responsible for the effects its actions have on people who are not its citizens? If not, why not? If so, why? What would be the best way to hold a country accountable?
  • Is the U.S. a good target for the grievances in this petition? Why or why not?
    • Can the U.S. be held responsible for climate change when every nation emits greenhouse gasses?
    • Does the United States’ position as a world power and the largest per-capita emitter of greenhouse gasses give it a responsibility to take a leadership role in slowing climate change?
    • If the United States were to take a strong leadership role on slowing climate change, how would that impact the character of the international efforts?
  • Because a ruling in favor of the Inuit would be largely symbolic and would not be enforceable, what could people hope to achieve with a petition like this? Could a petition like this be effective? If so, in what way? If not, why? What other actions might be effective?
  • If you were a member of an indigenous nation that was trying to engage in discussion with the United States and assert its rights, how would you proceed? What challenges might you expect? What other ideas might you try? How would you feel?
  • Some people reacted to the ICC petition by pointing out what they saw as the “hypocrisy” of the Inuit complaining about another country’s carbon emissions while they themselves burn fossil fuel for heat and transportation.
    • Does the fact that Inuit drive snow-mobiles, fly airplanes and heat their homes with fossil fuels lessen the impact of their petition?


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