Indigenous Peoples, Sustainability, and Climate Change

Climate change is rapidly accelerating, as demonstrated by the recent and unprecedented fires in Brazil, Australia and California, as well as increasingly extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and “bomb cyclones.” Species extinction is at an all-time high, and the health of the world’s oceans and forests is in jeopardy. Yet, as a global society, we remain unable to grasp the scope of the problem or achieve a workable plan for the future. Countries such as the United States and Brazil have, in fact, accelerated fossil fuel energy production, with the current political leaders questioning whether climate change is “real” and denying responsibility for increased greenhouse gas emissions.

The human costs of climate change are extensive, but often invisible. This is particularly true for Indigenous peoples, which are among the world’s most vulnerable human communities. When the fires raged through the Amazon last fall, over one million Indigenous people from five hundred tribes were at risk of losing their homes. Worldwide, there are an estimated five thousand Indigenous peoples. Many continue to live upon their traditional lands, exercising customary rights to hunt, fish, gather, and harvest timber. Indigenous peoples’ homes and livelihoods are increasingly in jeopardy due to deforestation, loss of species habitat, drought, and fire. In the United States, several Indigenous communities in the coastal areas of Louisiana, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska face imminent relocation due to coastal erosion and flooding. Yet, there is no available program to assist climate refugees and the costs of relocating an entire community are substantially higher than the current levels of emergency aid offered to displaced families after floods and fires.

Ironically, a majority of the world’s biodiversity flourishes on the lands occupied by Indigenous peoples. Many Indigenous peoples have longstanding traditional knowledge about how to manage the environment in a way that fosters resilience. For example, in Australia, the forests that were still managed by Indigenous communities did not burn. Indigenous environmental knowledge (often called “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” or TEK) offers an invaluable lens into “sustainability” as an intergenerational practice.

For most Indigenous peoples, “sustainability” is the result of conscious and intentional strategies designed to secure an appropriate balance between human beings and the nature world, and to ensure that the land and environment are available for future generations. Oren Lyons, the esteemed Haudenosaunee Faith Keeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, has described this ethic as follows: “Our leaders were instructed to be men of vision and to make every decision on behalf of the seventh generation; to have compassion and love for those yet unborn. We were instructed to give thanks for All that Sustains Us.” Many other Indigenous cultures have similar beliefs and they assess and manage their natural environments with a sophisticated blend of scientific knowledge and philosophical reverence.

The five articles featured in this Law Meets World Series emerged from a Fall 2019 seminar on

“Indigenous Peoples, Sustainability, and Climate Change.” Our seminar explored the impacts of climate change upon Indigenous communities throughout the world, in relation to the documented effects on global ecosystems, the policy responses to these environmental changes, and the social, cultural and economic consequences of climate change.

The global political response to climate change is embedded within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), which entered into force in 1994, and has fostered a series of intergovernmental accords, most recently the Paris Agreement of December 12, 2015. The Paris Agreement was the first international climate accord to reference the rights of Indigenous peoples, both within the preamble and the text. Indigenous peoples are identified as “nonparty stakeholders” and their traditional knowledge is explicitly referenced in the document. The Paris Agreement contributed to the emerging recognition that climate change is a human rights issue, and that it exacerbates the social, cultural and economic divides that emerged from colonialism. In addition, the multifaceted nature of the “climate problem” defies any ready solution and requires an interdisciplinary and critical analysis. Current literature anticipates the need for a transition in energy economies, for example, and also for solar radiation management technologies, although commentators differ on their recommendations. The scope and scale of these proposed changes will have significant impacts upon local and national economies.

This collection of articles engages several overarching themes of concern to Indigenous peoples, presenting them within an interactive, global context. As “nonparty stakeholders,” Indigenous peoples are often constrained by the policy decisions of the nation-states that encompass them. There are continuing tensions over Indigenous peoples’ political status and rights, the impacts of colonialism, and the relationship between culture and resilience. Each article focuses on the experience of a particular group with environmental change and the ways in which the group has adapted or attempted to mobilize political action to address the issue.

- Rebecca A. Tsosie