Most everyone has heard about climate change, and most certainly about
global warming. While some people still don't believe climate change
exists, I am convinced it is real.
In January, climate experts from 30 countries met in England to discuss new
evidence which proves we are fast approaching the point of no return. These
experts report an ecological time bomb ticking away toward widespread
drought, crop failures and rising sea levels. Scientists throughout the
world continue to conclude with deep urgency that climate change is
creating dangerous conditions that require immediate attention.
The November 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment Report found that for
indigenous people of the Arctic, climate change is very real. The report
describes massive thinning and depletion of sea ice, which may result in
species of seals, walrus and polar bear being pushed to extinction by 2070
Many Inuit, Inupiat, Yupik and Athabascan Natives of Alaska and Canada are
experiencing increasing difficulty in predicting weather and environmental
conditions. Hunters have even perished by falling through sea ice when
traveling to hunting territories across historically safe paths. While
climate change remains a complex issue and myth to some, it is already
having devastating consequences for our brothers and sisters of the far
Human survival is increasingly threatened by the bio-degenerative
consequences of an industrial and technological society: depletion of
aquifers and water resources; expanding deserts; decreasing forests;
declining fisheries; poisoned food, water, and air; and climatic extremes
such as floods, hurricanes and droughts. Air pollution from burning fossil
fuels causes health affects such as asthma, respiratory diseases and acute
respiratory disorders. While environmental degradation in itself is by no
means new, throw into this mixture the challenges indigenous communities
face socially, culturally, economically and politically, and we're
presented with a number of very difficult changes and challenges.
People often ask about the cause of climate change. A vast majority of
scientists confirm that climate change is caused by human activities, such
as the burning of fossil fuels - coal, oil and gas, including coal bed
methane - to produce energy. During this process carbon dioxide (CO2) is
emitted into the atmosphere where it builds up, blankets Mother Earth as a
greenhouse gas and traps in heat, causing climate change. There are other
greenhouse gases that add to this blanket effect, but climate change is
caused mostly by the burning of fossil fuels in coal-fired power plants,
automobiles and by other industrial processes.
The United States creates 25 percent of yearly global greenhouse gas
emissions but has less than five percent of the world's population. To have
a fighting chance to keep climate change within safe levels, the U.S. must
reduce emissions of CO2 by 80 percent below year 2000 levels by 2050 - and
we must begin to make these reductions right away. But this isn't
As the rest of the developed world begins to implement the Kyoto Protocol,
an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally,
U.S. corporate lobbyists have been very effective in derailing national and
international action to address climate change. The U.S. has chosen not to
sign on to the Kyoto Protocol. Although the U.S. accounts for a quarter of
CO2 emissions and common sense says our country must be held accountable to
forging genuine solutions, this isn't the plan of the U.S. energy policy.
Coal-fired power plants, making up one-third of total U.S. CO2 emissions,
are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. The proposed U.S. energy plan
relies heavily on increasing coal-powered energy production to meet
America's growing electricity demand.
Today, utilities burn a billion tons of coal annually to produce 54 percent
of the nation's electricity. Coal mines on federal and American Indian
lands in the Northern Plains and the Southwest contribute nearly 40 percent
of the nation's total coal production.
If implemented, the U.S. energy plan will lead to more coal mines
throughout the country, more leasing and mining of coal on public and
tribal lands, more coal-fired power plants and power lines, more air
pollution, more taking of private property and tribal land easements for
power lines and less investment in the efficient use of energy. If left
unchallenged, the coal industry will continue to dump millions of tons of
CO2 into the atmosphere each year, increasing and intensifying the impacts
of climate change.
The 2005 U.S. energy bill promotes a fossil fuel industry. This
soon-to-be-introduced energy legislation is predicted to be very similar to
the 2003 energy bill which, fortunately, did not pass in the House. It was
filled with language that would bolster the power of coal, oil and gas
industries at the expense of emerging renewable technologies, energy
efficiency and conservation. Under the terms of the bill, fossil fuel
producers would enjoy more than twice the tax incentives than producers of
renewable and alternative energy.
Also, the 2003 energy bill included an Indian Title VI section with
numerous provisions that would make it easier and faster for the energy
industry to build fossil fuel ventures in Indian country - at the expense
of the livelihoods of our brothers and sisters of the Arctic.
Another legislative action coming out this year to address climate change
is the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act (S. 342/H.R. 759). This act
is a small step in the right direction. It came within seven votes of
passage in the U.S. Senate in 2003 and has been reintroduced this year. The
legislation would bring U.S. levels of global warming emissions to year
2000 levels by the year 2010 and would set the first binding limits on
greenhouse gas emitters in the U.S.
American Indians, Alaska Natives and elected tribal leaders need to stand
as one voice to demand U.S. policies that will increase the fuel efficiency
of motor vehicles, deploy clean renewable energy solutions and implement
energy efficiency and conservation programs.
One of many solutions is for this country to revamp, re-amp and rewire the
colonial utility grid system to make room for tribal large-scale wind power
generation. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that wind resources in
the Great Plains alone could meet 75 percent of the electricity demand in
the lower 48 states.
Groups like the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, working with the
Rosebud Lakota Nation and 20 larger Indian reservations on the Northern
Plains, estimate these tribes could exceed several hundred gigawatts of
wind power potential. The Rosebud Lakota Nation recently constructed a 750
kW wind turbine. For tribal communities off the grid, the Sacred Power
Corp., a Native-owned small business in Albuquerque, N.M., is putting up
solar and wind hybrid power stations and energy-efficient upgrades for
homes in remote Navajo Nation communities in northwest New Mexico.
The connection between the sustainable livelihood of indigenous people in
the U.S. and worldwide and the negative affects of climate change is
undeniable. The need to address climate change as a human rights issue is
urgent. Here in the U.S., climate change must be looked at as a treaty and
an Indian rights issue. Climate change is a genuine threat to our health,
our physical and cultural survival and our future generations.
As Corbin Harney, spiritual leader of the Western Shoshone Nation, said:
"We, the people, are going to have to put our thoughts together, our power
together, to save our planet here. We've only got one water, one air, one
Tom B.K. Goldtooth, Dine, is the executive director of the Indigenous
Environmental Network, a nonprofit Native environmental justice
organization providing advocacy, informational services and organizing
support to tribal governments, tribal grassroots and indigenous people
worldwide. Goldtooth is an active participant in the United Nations
Framework Convention on Climate Change as well as North American climate