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Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

A new United Nations report published in Berlin Monday could not be more clear: Climate change is already “causing dangerous and widespread disruption in nature and affecting the lives of billions of people around the world.”

Many tribal and Arctic communities are first in line. Or as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says: “People and ecosystems least able to cope are being hardest hit.”

A statement released by the Indigenous Environmental Network says the UN report demonstrates that “our addiction to fossil fuels has caused climate warming at a rate not seen in at least the past 2000 years.” This information “is not news for Indigenous peoples for this report merely reinforces what Indigenous peoples have been saying all along.”

The Indigenous network is also critical of the UN for continuing to “ignore its own science” by promoting carbon trading markets allowing continued fossil fuel expansion.

“These false solutions do not address our crisis at its root and continue the violation of Indigenous Peoples rights across the globe,” the Indigenous network said.

“Earth’s ecosystems are declining globally at unprecedented rates with one exception – on average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.”

Urgent action

The UN calls for “urgent action” to both adapt to climate change and to make deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to limit the damage from “increased heatwaves, droughts and floods” and to avoid “mounting loss of life.”

Rising temperatures are “already exceeding plants’ and animals’ tolerance thresholds, driving mass mortalities in species such as trees and corals. These weather extremes are occurring simultaneously, causing cascading impacts that are increasingly difficult to manage. They have exposed millions of people to acute food and water insecurity, especially in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, on Small Islands and in the Arctic.”

“The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future,” said the working group’s co-chair, Hans-Otto Pörtner.

“Our assessment clearly shows that tackling all these different challenges involves everyone – governments, the private sector, civil society – working together to prioritize risk reduction, as well as equity and justice, in decision-making and investment,” said the co-chair of the UN’s working group, Debra Roberts. “In this way, different interests, values and world views can be reconciled. By bringing together scientific and technological know-how as well as Indigenous and local knowledge, solutions will be more effective.”

Supreme Court's review of EPA's authority

The global warning was released on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case, West Virginia versus the Environmental Protection Agency, that considers the power of the executive branch to enforce its regulations designed to limit carbon emissions.

That case is extraordinary because the court is reviewing EPA rules that do not even exist yet. There are lots of issues in that case about the specific authority of the agency and its power of regulation. But there are also two larger tests. First, the will of the United States to make the kind of dramatic changes that are called for by the UN report. And, second, the notion that Congress must explicitly and clearly grant the agency authority to make “decisions of vast economic and political significance.”

At the high court, the justices took up an appeal from 19 mostly Republican-led states and coal companies that contend the EPA has only narrow authority to regulate carbon output.

Some conservative justices appeared skeptical of broad EPA authority over carbon dioxide emissions, but there could be obstacles to issuing a major ruling. Among these are arguments from power plant operators serving 40 million people that call on the court to maintain the companies' flexibility to reduce emissions while maintaining reliable service.

President Joe Biden has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the decade, but he has so far failed to win congressional approval of climate change proposals contained in his Build Back Better plan.

A new policy to regulate carbon productions from power plants is not expected before the end of the year, Elizabeth Prelogar, Biden's top Supreme Court lawyer, told the justices Monday.

But the court did not appear interested in Prelogar's argument that it should dismiss the case because there is no current EPA plan in place to deal with carbon output from power plants.

Environmental groups have worried that the court could preemptively undermine whatever plan Biden's team develops to address power plant emissions.

A broad ruling by the court also could weaken regulatory efforts that extend well beyond the environment, including consumer protections, workplace safety and public health. Several conservative justices have criticized what they see as the unchecked power of federal agencies.

David Doniger, a climate change expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the Supreme Court's consideration of the issue is premature, a view shared by the administration.

He said the administration's opponents are advancing “horror stories about extreme regulations the EPA may issue in the future. The EPA is writing a new rule on a clean slate.”

However West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, speaking at a recent event in Washington, cast the power plant case as about who should make the rules. “Should it be unelected bureaucrats, or should it be the people’s representatives in Congress?" Morrisey said. West Virginia is leading the states opposed to broad EPA authority.

“While it remains essential to produce affordable electricity in an efficient and clean manner, environmental regulations must be drafted in a manner that also recognizes the need for a sustainable and thriving economy and jobs,” the American Coal Council said. “Regulations that ‘overshoot the mark’ by ‘sacrificing jobs’ in the pursuit of environmental purity, rather than protecting ‘both jobs and the environment’ do far more long-term harm. In the rush to pass more and more regulation, it is often thought that more regulation will inevitably lead to better results. However, the reality is that unbalanced, or poorly planned regulation often has regressive and destructive impacts – that type of regulation often ends up hurting the very people it was intended to protect.”

Four Corners Power Plant owned by the Navajo Transitional Energy Company on the Navajo Nation near Farmington, New Mexico. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, ICT, File)

Coal is the single largest contributor to anthropogenic climate change. The burning of coal is responsible for 46 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the International Energy Association. And it adds up to nearly three-quarters of all greenhouse gas emissions for the electricity generation.

The Navajo Nation is the third-largest producer of coal in the United States with its company, Navajo Transitional Energy Company. The Bureau of Indian Affairs reports that 20 tribal nations have significant coal reserves. “Coal has been a major contributor to these Tribes’ economic health, generally accounting for more than 50% of Tribes’ total income and creating thousands of direct, high paying jobs,” the BIA report said.

However, the UN says that in order to meet climate goals fossil fuel production must shrink by 6 percent per year to avoid the harshest consequence of a warmer planet. So far most nations in the world are projecting an average annual increase of 2 per cent.

(Related story: Drive. Ride. Rethink.)

This UN report provides a detailed assessment of climate change impacts, risks and adaptation in cities, where more than half the world’s population lives.

“Together, growing urbanization and climate change create complex risks, especially for those cities that already experience poorly planned urban growth, high levels of poverty and unemployment, and a lack of basic services,” Debra Roberts said.

“But cities also provide opportunities for climate action – green buildings, reliable supplies of clean water and renewable energy, and sustainable transport systems that connect urban and rural areas can all lead to a more inclusive, fairer society.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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