Sheila Watt-Cloutier, global advocate for indigenous rights and health, and leader focused on the impact of climate change on human rights, will present a keynote address at the Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit at CU Boulder in December.
In 2005, Watt-Cloutier launched the world's first international legal action on climate change: a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights alleging that fossil fuel emissions from the United States—a large contributor to global warming —violated Inuit cultural and environmental human rights.
S. James Anaya, a distinguished professor at the University of Colorado Law School and chair of the Right Here, Right Now summit steering committee, described Watt-Cloutier as a pioneer in building awareness about the immediate human rights impacts of climate change.
“Her petition in 2005 on behalf of Inuit people in the Arctic who were seeing—and are still seeing—their way of life and survival threatened by warming temperatures, broke new ground in climate advocacy,” Anaya said. “Throughout her work as an innovative leader, author and speaker, she has inspired bold new thinking for building solutions to the climate crises that affects us all.”
Disproportionately impacted by climate change, the Arctic is not only home to polar bears but to millions of people, who are struggling to sustain their way of life as their home warms twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Watt-Cloutier has risen from humble beginnings in the Arctic to the global stage to advocate for Inuit communities’ cultural survival.
“Climate change is about people as much as it is about the earth, and the science, economics, and politics of our changing environment must always have a human face,” Watt-Cloutier wrote in her 2015 memoir The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet. “[We need] to have the health of the planet and its people, rather than national interests, determine target emissions for greenhouse gasses.”
Watt-Cloutier was a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize nominee (along with Al Gore) and in 2015 was awarded the Right Livelihood Award for her “lifelong work to protect the Inuit of the Arctic and defend their right to maintain their livelihoods and culture, which are acutely threatened by climate change.” For this work at the intersection of human rights and the environment, she has also been awarded the Sophie Prize (2005), the Champion of the Earth Award from the United Nations Environment Programme (2005), the Rachel Carson Prize (2007) and the Climate Change Award from the Prince Albert of Monaco Foundation (2017).
The Dec. 1–4 summit, co-hosted with United Nation Human Rights, will bring thought leaders, youth activists, scientific, political, educational, cultural and industry experts from around the world to campus for public keynotes and panels exploring how climate change impacts fundamental rights, including the right to food, safe water, housing and health.
Watt-Cloutier is the second of several keynote speakers to be announced. The first was former Irish President Mary Robinson, a well-known climate justice advocate.
After working for the Kativik School Board and the Nunavik Education Task Force, in 1995 Watt-Cloutier was elected as corporate secretary for Makivik Corporation—the political organization representing the Inuit of Nunavik. That same year, she was elected president of the Canadian branch of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), an international non-governmental organization founded in 1977 to represent the interests of Inuit in Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland.
A central focus of her work in these two roles was to address the health threats that persistent organic pollutants (POPs), such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and DDT insecticide, posed in Arctic communities, especially to nursing mothers and their babies. Watt-Cloutier was instrumental as a spokesperson in the negotiation of the Stockholm Convention on POPs, which regulates these toxins in the hopes of minimizing their impacts. The convention was adopted in 2001, entered into force in 2004 and has since been ratified by 179 countries.
From 2002 through 2006, she held the elected position of international chair of the ICC, representing not just Canadians but all Inuit people of the circumpolar regions.
In December 2005, Watt-Cloutier released a petition called “Seeking Relief from Violations Resulting from Global Warming Caused by Acts and Omissions of the United States.” She was joined by 62 Inuit hunters and elders from communities across Canada and Alaska, issuing the document to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and initiating the world’s first international legal action on climate change. While the IACHR did not hear the petition, Watt-Cloutier and her team were invited to testify at the committee’s first hearing on climate change and human rights in March 2007.
“Without a stable, safe climate, people cannot exercise their economic, social or cultural rights,” wrote Watt-Cloutier in her memoir. “For Inuit, as for all of us, this is what I call the right to be cold. And this is what I have been fighting for over the last 20 years of my life's work.”