climate change, United States, tribal governance, human rights, Native Nations, development, environmental policy, energy development, decision-making
This essay discusses the place of indigenous peoples within the politics of climate change. In the United States, contemporary policymakers understand federally-recognized Indian tribes as “domestic dependent nations.” In that capacity, tribal governments have the power to address many environmental issues arising on their reservation lands and impacting their members. At the level of international policy, Native Nations are designated as “indigenous peoples,” with a distinctive set of human rights related to their unique identity as land-based communities with longstanding cultural connections to their environments. Sometimes those two identities operate consistently, allowing Native Nations to preclude forms of energy development that threaten their lands, communities, and cultures, as the Navajo Nation did when it enacted the Dine Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005, which banned uranium mining within Navajo Indian Country. Sometimes, however, the identities may be in tension. For example, coal and oil extraction may benefit the economic interests of Native Nations which hold ownership interests in these resources, but may jeopardize the subsistence lifeways of other Native peoples who depend upon the integrity of their lands and waters, as well as the plants, animals and fish in those natural environments. In the era of climate change, these tensions are becoming particularly apparent, forcing Native peoples and policymakers to make difficult decisions about the optimal energy policies to guide the future. This essay compares the predominant model of decision-making, which uses a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis to construct the optimal policy to serve the interests of national and tribal governments in the present day, with the type of long-range thinking used by many land-based indigenous communities to promote sustainable use of lands and resources for several generations. The essay concludes that the current challenge of climate change poses an opportunity to transform our ways of thinking about environmental policy and energy development.
(2010) Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation 25 (1)