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Tribes Need to Push Climate Change Reform Now

As ICTMN reported recently, indigenous peoples will be at the forefront of upcoming United Nations and civil society events in New York City. The long anticipated, one and a half day World Conference on Indigenous Peoples will be immediately followed by a one day United Nations Climate Summit. Immediately preceding the Summit is a three day Climate Convergence conference and march in which indigenous groups like #Idle No More And International Indian Treaty Council are taking a lead role.

Unlike a decade ago, climate change is no longer a topic limited to the ranting of left-wing radicals and only the daftest of fools continue to deny its reality. The evidence is staring us in the face with each new catastrophic weather event and satellite image of melting polar ice caps. And scientists and politicians alike know that indigenous peoples are the canaries in the proverbial coal mine. Climate refugees are by and large indigenous peoples from island nations and other low-lying regions being inundated by rising seas, to say nothing of those displaced by famine and drought from changing weather patterns.

No one is unaffected, even in the so-called “first world.” Fourth World nations are on the frontlines of climate disaster; the Quinault Nation received a sobering wake-up call earlier this year when a state of emergency was declared after a seawall breach caused severe flooding. Northwest coast tribes are also affected by a disastrous decline in shellfish due to ocean acidification. The Columbia River plateau region is expected to become more vulnerable to drought, warmer summer temperatures, and more extreme weather episodes. Earlier snowmelt and reductions in snowpack will stress some reservoir systems, and increased stress on groundwater systems will lead to a decrease in recharge and ultimately decreases in salmon populations.

This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the havoc climate change is and will continue to wreak, not just in the Pacific Northwest, but all over Indian country. Climate change demands the ability to mitigate and adapt to the damage and disruption being caused to traditional ways of life in indigenous communities. It does also, in fact, present the opportunity for Indian nations to respond in ways that reinforce their self-determination by developing their own unique approaches to mitigate and adapt to climate change. At this point every native nation in the US should be adopting a tribal climate change policy (TCCP).

In 2008 I wrote a research paper on the need for TCCP, specifically for the Colville Confederated Tribes. Back then, tribal nations were only just beginning to think about how to prepare for climate change. It’s interesting to see how much has changed since then. For example, the Obama administration in 2013 moved to support tribal self-determination through climate change action when it included tribal participation in an executive order promoting national climate change preparedness, something almost unimaginable in the Bush administration of 2008.

While such initiatives focus on funding, TCCP should be culturally responsive to individual nations. I wrote that “it must encompass cultural, political, economic, and legal considerations; in other words, it should be ‘holistic’ to be meaningful and effective. It should be rooted in traditional cultural values drawn from ancestral teachings and stories which teach respect for the land and all that lives on the land, in the sky and in the waters (traditional environmental knowledge and spirituality). Those teachings inform appropriate action and are guiding philosophies as much for today’s people as those of the ancient past.”

I wrote that “functionally, TCCP should take into consideration mitigation efforts as much as possible; however, at this point adaptation efforts must be pursued with priority simply because climate change impacts are unavoidable. It should take into account that while current international efforts addressing climate change (i.e. the Kyoto Protocol and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) are focused on the actions of Member States, the voices of indigenous peoples is marginalized. They must be inserted because it is indigenous people who are more disproportionately affected by climate change as well as being vulnerable to the dysfunctional elements of the carbon trading system. We need to remember that within the global conversation of how to deal with climate change, it is the Social Greens who most represent our interests, and it is with groups that espouse this ideology that we must ally ourselves most closely.”

Six years later, we have witnessed not just the solid alignment with the Social Green movement, but indigenous peoples taking the lead in climate justice activism. The Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 proved not to be responsive enough to indigenous peoples, and it was the bravery of Canadian First Nations women who gave birth to #Idle No More, now perhaps the most recognizable contingent of indigenous peoples in the world of climate justice activism.

The upcoming events in New York, however well attended and organized they turn out to be, are unlikely to produce any sweeping changes for indigenous peoples. And there may even be legitimate reasons to be leery of the NGO industrial complex driving today’s climate justice activism with whom indigenous nations are partnering. At the end of the day though, it’s all just a reminder that Fourth World/indigenous peoples must be proactive by creating and implementing their own plans for the inevitable future of a warmer world.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies.