Johann Hari: The first signs of a fightback

The people of Tuvalu are poised to challenge the energy companies in the international courts
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The Independent Online

As the world's environmental ministers jet into Montreal to jaw-jaw about global warming, two peoples - from opposite ends of the earth - are trying to make their voices heard above the petrol-scented denial and lame offers of "voluntary restrictions" offered by world leaders. The Inuit live, for now, in a melting Arctic. The people of Tuvalu live, for now, on a low-lying South Pacific island already disappearing below rising sea levels. Try offering them the cliché about global warming - that it is a danger to our children and grandchildren - and they will tell you: screw the grandchildren, this is ruining our lives, now.

The Inuit spokeswoman Sheila Watt-Cloutier grew up in Nunavik, the Arctic end of Quebec, in the 1960s, hunting for seal and caribou as her ancestors have for thousands of years. She expected this lifestyle to continue for millennia more, until - as she puts it - "the Inuit suddenly found ourselves on the cusp of a defining event in the history of this planet. We found the Earth was literally melting beneath our feet."

Climatologists have known for decades that the Arctic would experience full-frontal global warming first, because (among other reasons) the Arctic has a thinner atmosphere. But for Sheila and her people, it came as a shock. "We used to have eight seasons, but suddenly they stopped," she explained. "All our traditional knowledge on how to survive and thrive on the land is rapidly becoming useless, because everything is changing. We cannot hunt. We cannot get our food. The species we live on are dying out. Our houses are collapsing as the permafrost melts. Everybody talks about how polar bears are an endangered species, but now we are an endangered species too."

The 150,000 Inuit living on the Arctic are seeing their habitat collapse around them in the space of a few generations. The sea-ice is extremely fragile, and many hunters have died as once-safe ice collapsed beneath them. Storms and blizzards have become far more frequent, and last Christmas, the Inuit saw thunder and lightning for the first time in their lives. After studying the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment - compiled by 300 distinguished climatologists - Sheila is in no doubt this is global warming: "We want the people of the rich world to understand that what you are doing on a daily basis is having a direct impact on a people, a culture and a way of life. The hunter who falls through the depleting and unpredictable sea-ice is connected to the cars we drive, the industries we rely on, and the disposable world we have become."

When a rich-world imbecile like Jeremy Clarkson boasts he has a carbon footprint 15 times larger than the average Brit, he is weakening the ice beneath Sheila's feet. And she is no shrieking hysteric: even the Republican congressman John McCain said after visiting her home: "These impacts are real and consistent with the scientific predictions."

Half a world away, the people of Tuvalu are watching their entire country disappear below rising sea levels. Tomasi Paupua, the governor of Tuvalu, explains: "At no more than three metres above sea level, Tuvalu is particularly exposed [to global warming]. Indeed our people are already migrating to escape."

Tuvaluans are being forced to abandon their islands - the focus of their religion, and the only land they have known - and move to a foreign country, New Zealand. Their elected leader says he is "begging the international community" to take action against global warming, but he knows it is probably already too late. His people believe they have given birth to the last generation of Tuvaluans to ever know their homeland. The only question now is whether Tuvalu will die from a thousand small waves, or whether one of the increasingly frequent extreme weather events will wipe it - and its people - out in one fell swoop.

We did this. The death of Inuit civilisation and the drowning of Tuvalu are the direct and predictable result of human action. They are part of a cruel pattern, where the people who have contributed least to global warming - the world's poor - are suffering most from it. This is mirrored at the Montreal talks, where the poor countries are being forced to beg for the tiniest crumbs - please give us some cash to save the rainforests, massa - from the people who inflicted global warming on them in the first place. In his must-read book Ecological Debt, the environmentalist Andrew Simms proposes a new way to understand this scandal. Instead of seeing the poor world as owing us billions in cash borrowed by long-dead dictators, we should understand that, in fact, we owe a huge ecological debt to the poor. He writes: "If you take more than your fair share of natural resources, you run up an ecological debt. If you have a lifestyle that pushes an ecosystem beyond its ability to renew itself, you run up an ecological debt."

How can this vast debt be repaid? Logically, they should be redeemed by our governments, but - as the paltry proposals at Montreal show - they are lying spaced-out in a corner, sucking on an exhaust pipe. So the victims of global warming are increasingly looking past governments to the courts for justice. The people of Tuvalu are poised to challenge the energy companies in the international courts, while Inuit have lodged a complaint against the United States government with the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) for "destroying our habitat". Because the US is a signatory, if the IACHR finds against Bush the ruling will clear the way for massive class-action suits against energy companies within the United States itself. This could drive up the cost of petrol.

The oil industry itself is already extremely anxious about these lawsuits, holding the memory of the tobacco industry in its mind. Christopher C Horner, a lawyer for a group "friendly" with the oil industry called the Cooler Heads Coalition, told The New York Times: "The planets are aligned very poorly for us" on this issue. So could we be about to see the Roe v Wade-ing of global warming, as activists give up on feeble governments and save it for the judge?

Sheila stresses that court action is not enough, and her people are not the only ones walking on thin ice. "The Arctic is only an early warning system. This is coming for you, too."

This Saturday, people from across the world will be marching to pressure their governments to introduce binding legal restrictions on CO2 before our climate spirals even further into chaos. (You can find details about the London protest at Are you going to leave the Inuit and the Tuvaluans to march alone?