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From the Arctic to the South Pacific, Most Vulnerable Countries Demand Climate Justice at COP21

Despite the promises made in Kyoto in 1992, the COP process “has failed to meet its objective.”

In a statement released on December 8 in English, French and Inuktitut, the Governments of Nunavut and Greenland and the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) called upon international climate agreement negotiators and industrialized nations to recognize the impact of climate change on the Arctic and address climate change with limits on temperature increase and the incorporation of indigenous knowledge into climate solutions.

According to the statement, “The Arctic is experiencing acute impacts related to climate change, including permafrost thaw, extreme increases in temperatures, loss of glacier and sea ice, extreme weather events and disruptions to Arctic wildlife. Even slight changes in the temperature cause major disruptions in the way that northern communities live and work.”

Meanwhile, a panel composed of lawyers from the University of the South Pacific in Vanuatu and an environmental law firm in Vancouver, Canada, presented the framework for a Climate Compensation Act, so that the world’s most vulnerable nations can “take climate justice into our own hands.”

In both cases, speakers and writers were unequivocal in reminding COP attendees of the disproportionate culpability of industrialized nations and transnational corporations for climate disruption and the outsized burden climate change is placing on innocent nations and peoples from the Arctic to the South Pacific and all around the world.

Nunavut and Greenland are autonomous regions administered or, in some eyes, colonized by Canada and Denmark, respectively. The ICC also includes autonomous Chukotka, a “federal subject” of Russia, stretching from the Arctic to the Pacific Ocean. While reiterating the absolute necessity of maintaining greenhouse gas emissions below 450 parts per million and restricting global warming to between 1.5 and 2.0 C, the representatives of all three Inuit regions also stressed the value of indigenous inclusion in combating climate change, demanding an accord that “recognizes the importance of indigenous knowledge, its significant contribution to our understanding of climate change, and acknowledges its value being on par with scientific data.”

In the words of Inuit Circumpolar Council Chair Okalik Eegeesiak: “As the representative of Inuit throughout the Arctic, I have seen and heard of the effects of climate change across several countries from Alaska to Greenland, Canada and Chukotka. Efforts to mitigate and adapt should consider the experiences of Inuit and other Indigenous peoples as we are most directly impacted by climate change. The Paris agreement and its implementation must therefore respect the rights of Indigenous peoples for the betterment of our planet.”

At a panel discussion to present the report “Taking Climate Justice Into Our Own Hands,” Margaretha Wewerinke, lecturer in environmental law at the University of the South Pacific in Vanuatu, spoke about the devastation wrought by a Category 5 cyclone in March on the 83 islands of that Pacific nation, “which lost 65% of its GDP because of this disaster, which scientists say is linked to climate change.” The report introduces the Climate Compensation Act, designed to provide “specific statutory language to clarify the legal basis” for recourse in the courts in seeking reparations for “loss and damage” due to climate change from the countries and corporations that may have caused it.

Despite the “polluter pays principle,” Wewerinke decried that, in describing how many Vanuatans lost everything they had, “the victims are paying for the damages.”

The report’s co-author, Andrew Gage of Vancouver’s West Coast Environmental Law firm, went on to say “it is well established in international law that it is the law of the country where the harm occurred that sets the legal framework. That is critical, because it means large-scale polluters can be held to account.”

According to Wewerinke, despite the promises made in Kyoto in 1992, the COP process “has failed to meet its objective.” As to the subject of reparations, “This is not being discussed at the negotiations today. There are talks about ‘loss and damage,’ but it is unlikely to result in reparations in accordance with international law.”

Perhaps the first time a major fossil fuel extractor headquartered in the United States was sued for environmental damages was when a 30,000 member class action suit was brought against oil company Texaco in a New York court in 1993. The case, Aguinda v. Texaco, concerned the devastation wrought by decades of oil exploration in an Amazonian area of Ecuador, home to the Cofán, Huaorani and other indigenous peoples, where the oil company employed practices considered illegal in its native land, resulting in what AmazonWatch calls a “Rainforest Chernobyl” and an oil spill 30 times greater than that of the Exxon Valdez. Texaco, now known as Chevron, has for over 20 years managed to elude enforcement of judgements against it in US, Canadian and Ecuadorian courts with continuing appeals.

When asked to comment about the Texaco/Ecuador suit, Gage replied, “The case is most relevant (at least in legal terms) to our “Taking Climate Justice into Our Own Hands” report in that it demonstrates how the laws of several different countries allow for enforcement of foreign judgments. The case is also very relevant from a social/narrative perspective, in illustrating that even economically disadvantaged communities can take on large fossil fuel companies and also as a reminder of how hard the fossil fuel companies may fight back if legal action is taken.”

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