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Steele: Why I went to Copenhagen

The history of American Indians is varied and each tribe has its own customs, but one belief that binds us all is our deep respect for the earth and the gifts it has given us. This belief has inspired the Salish and Kootenai people’s effort to protect our air, water and other natural resources for future generations. We now recognize that one environmental threat poses a challenge like no other – global climate change.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I journeyed to Copenhagen, Denmark in December to represent the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes at the international climate change conference. President Barack Obama and most other world leaders were present, working on an international treaty to halt global climate change by curbing greenhouse gas emissions. While the meeting did not yield the binding agreement we had all hoped for, it did produce an interim agreement which provides a path to a better, more complete treaty in 2010. Most importantly, China committed to transparency and accountability in their efforts to reduce emissions, something they had never done before.

It was apparent in Copenhagen that the whole world awaits action from the country most responsible for carbon pollution – the United States. The U.S. needs to lead the world by passing strong, comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation through Congress. And we need to do this now because Montana is already affected by global climate change.

Research by University of Montana Nobel Laureate Dr. Steve Running shows our mountain snowpack is melting an average of three weeks earlier in the spring. Reduced snowpack means lower and warmer stream flows in mid-summer, which threatens native fish as well as agricultural users of water. On the Flathead Reservation, where we obtain most of our own energy from hydropower, less water also threatens our ability to generate electricity for our citizens and businesses.

Clean energy jobs will benefit the whole state, including Native people. Anyone who has been to Browning knows the power of its wind.

Global warming also threatens Native people disproportionately. A 2007 report from the University of Colorado indicates that global warming is likely to hit American Indians especially hard as rising seas flood Native lands in Florida, and droughts trigger water wars in the Southwest. In Alaska, global climate change is already eroding the permafrost and melting the sea ice, leaving coastal towns – largely inhabited by Natives – increasingly vulnerable to storm surges.

We need Congress to act. As representatives of a state that is home to seven recognized (and one unrecognized) tribes, Democratic Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, as well as Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg should be leaders in congressional efforts to pass clean energy legislation with a strong limit on greenhouse gas pollution.

The effects of such legislation will also greatly benefit Montanans. A cap on carbon pollution will trigger an investment in clean energy and energy conservation and that means jobs for Montana. Whether it is insulating and retrofitting homes in Arlee, or installing wind turbines near Great Falls, these investments will create well-paying jobs that cannot be outsourced to China. These clean energy jobs will benefit the whole state, including Native people. Anyone who has been to Browning knows the power of its wind. A wind generation facility there would provide economic benefits to the Blackfeet people and supply Montana with an additional source of clean energy.

A cap on carbon emissions will not cost much; only about $14 per month for the average family, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s review of the bill that passed the House of Representatives. That’s a small price to pay for policies that will help break our dependence on foreign sources of energy and create economic opportunities. And low income households are actually expected to save money under climate legislation, as a result of the implementation of energy conservation and efficiency programs.

When I was in Copenhagen, I met people from around the globe who had come to emphasize the urgent need to slow global warming. The message was clear – the U.S. must lead the world by enacting a strong, science-based cap on greenhouse gas pollution. Failure is no longer an option. The cost of inaction is too high, for our people as well as our wildlife and natural resources.

James Steele is the chairman of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council and former chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.