We are in a climate and ecological crisis. However, some members of society are more impacted by the changing climate than others—most notably, Indigenous people. A history of colonialism, continued discrimination, and the close relationship that Indigenous people have with their natural environments makes them especially vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis—engendering a myriad of consequences.
The IPCC often fails to include the more human aspects of climate change—this is unfortunately common in these types of scientifically-focused reports. When minorities are mentioned in climate change reports, it is oftentimes done incidentally, which is itself a consequence of colonialism.
The European invasion of Indigenous land in the Americas drastically changed everything for Native people as well as the planet. The most immediate impact was a death rate that amounted to 90 percent of the Native people in the Americas.
Environmentally speaking, early records of destruction of Indigenous land was chronicled in 1552 by Bartolomé de las Casas, who described this devastation in stating “there are 2,100 leagues of land that have been ruined and depopulated, empty of people.”
Native journalist Mark Tehrant added that the effects of colonialism on Indigenous people and this massive depopulation subsequently opened the doors for the advancement of the Industrial Revolution and perpetual European domination of both people and of environmental resources. European countries thrived, and continue to thrive, from the eradication of Native people, exploitation of their land, and pollution of their air and water.
This rapid population decline induced major ramifications; not only from a humanitarian perspective but also from an environmental one. This population decline, or what The University College London entitles “the Great Dying,” drastically altered agricultural production. Indigenous population held roughly 60 million people before the European invasion—after this extinction, the population was reduced to roughly 5 or 6 million people; reducing agricultural development drastically.
Prior to colonialism, Indigenous land use was incredibly widespread—stretched throughout Mexico, Central America, Bolivia, and the Andes in South America—where the utilization of irrigated agriculture and terraced fields were common. A study on this issue concluded that “the uptake of carbon on the abandoned anthropogenic lands after European contact may have been large enough to impact the atmospheric CO2 record.”
The implications of this “genocide-generated drop in CO2” lie in the recorded Little Ice Age around the 1500s/1600s, where there was a drop in average temperatures. This study shows that the rapid population decline due to colonialism resulted in an anthropogenic global impact two centuries preceding the Industrial Revolution.
Indigenous people tend to live in places that are distressed by the impacts of climate change—their poverty exacerbates their vulnerability. The National Climate Assessment outlines the disproportionate effects of climate change and projects a dire future for the Earth.
The report additionally outlines the various effects that the ecological crisis will have in different areas, most notably, a section on “tribes and indigenous peoples.” It reads “climate change increasingly threatens indigenous communities’ livelihoods, economies, health, and cultural identities by obstructing interconnected social, physical, and ecological systems”.
The term “environmental justice” has been used to describe the disproportional impacts of the hegemonic environmental decision-making process on vulnerable communities, including Indigenous people.
The environmental justice movement that surfaced in the 1980s and 1990s considered Indigenous people to be victims of “environmental racism,” as they hold a history of stereotyping, exclusion, and economic and political disenfranchisement. Besieged with a number of hazardous conditions, Indigenous people fit the profile for being disproportionately affected by environmental policy and practices.
For example, uranium mining on Native reservations has plagued land and water resources with radioactive contamination. Also, destruction of Native lands due to coal strip-mining is so evident that the American Academy of Sciences has referred to Navajo lands in the Four Corners region as “national sacrifice areas”.
A contemporary issue surrounding the concept of environmental racism is the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. There was no consultation with tribes before the construction of this pipeline in terms of cultural and environmental impacts. Additionally, Dakota Access moved the pipeline route away from the city of Bismarck while maintaining and even increasing its proximity to Native American communities.
This is an environmental justice issue, where the impacts on and consultation from the affluent, white community had priority over the impacts on and input from Indigenous Peoples.
The environmental devastation that this pipeline creates is extremely evident. Six months into the Dakota Access pipeline operations there have already been five spills, a fact that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated at a U.S. House Committee meeting entitled “Holding Megabanks Accountable: An Examination of Wells Fargo’s Pattern of Consumer Abuses”.
The connection between megabanks and fossil fuels is alarming, as Wells Fargo president Timothy Sloan continuously denies the harmful ramifications of the pipeline and refuses to acknowledge that the spills occurred. Native journalist Jourdan Bennett-Begaye reports that Wells Fargo’s “investments in fossil fuel-extracting companies has worsened the climate crisis, trampled human rights, and endangered the country’s drinking water supply”.
Some Native tribe leaders have denounced this proclamation of environmental racism. Their reasoning included that the portrayal of Native people as “noble people who live in harmony with the land” was a destructive stereotype that halted economic success. Kevin Gover, an attorney for the Campo Tribe, noted that “such stereotypes perpetuated an incorrect and paternalistic view of tribal self-governance, and limited the tribes from engaging in economic development”.
For instance, employment opportunities for tribal members are largely centralized at power plants on the Navajo reservation and provide millions of dollars in tax revenue. Stopping energy development on reservations, even if these developments are environmentally damaging, may create additional economic concerns for tribes.
A solution to this issue may involve investment in renewable energy sources, as it could reduce environmental and health impacts while still fostering a successful economy. However, these options would need to guarantee respect for Indigenous people’s collective rights to land, territories, and resources; self-determination; and the right to practice cultural traditions.
Consequently, the Green New Deal plans to fight climate change while creating millions of new jobs in the process. This resolution will address environmental racism, stating that “it is the duty of the Federal Government to promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth”
As stated in a multitude of posts prior to this one, it is extremely important, for the safety of our planet and all that inhabit it, that all Americans stand behind a Green New Deal. If your representatives do not already support it, call them and write letters and urge them to. Do understand, however, that this action in itself will not produce change. It is additionally necessary that residents of the United States (and beyond) organize. Governments across the world have proven their incapability and negligence—the future is in our hands now.