Native Leadership is the Key to Open Climate Justice Door

Haida totem. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

With the release in April of the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the time is ripe to celebrate a breakthrough by Indigenous Peoples in participation on the scientific advisory board that guides global warming policy for 195 U.N. countries. Opinion leaders should push the envelope for more of the same.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council announced a month earlier that it is the first Indigenous Peoples Organization to obtain formal Observer status to the IPCC. It has been taking part in the Working Group process that resulted in the August report on the “Physical Science Basis” that led to the U.N. Secretary General António Guterres declaring a “code red for humanity”. It joined in the February report on “Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability” and the latest, “Mitigation of Climate Change”.

Inuit Circumpolar Council International Chair Dr. Sambo Dorough said her transcontinental organization has been working with the IPCC “to ensure that consideration is given to Indigenous knowledge in future assessments.” The council emphasizes Indigenous self-determination in research and Indigenous leadership in transformative adaptation and climate resilience.

In a vanguard move, the Canadian government had included the council in its national delegation at IPCC approval sessions. “This positive partnership … is exemplary of how state party members can support and work with Indigenous Peoples Organizations,” the council said. Using the federal backing as a stepping stone, the council achieved its independent Observer status. It now can participate autonomously in IPCC meetings and provide direct interventions.

The council’s impact was clear in the February report, in which Working Group 2 said the vulnerability of Indigenous Peoples to climate change effects is produced and exacerbated by inequities in gender, income, and class status – and by historical marginalization in patterns molded since colonial times that are reinforced in different ways today.

The report calls for the inclusion of diverse sectors — especially Indigenous Peoples — in climate change governance and for collaboration between actors with distinct knowledge bases. Here, the IPCC states that the participation of Indigenous Peoples in climate governance is an ethical and essential requirement. The document recognizes Native traditional knowledge throughout. It says autochthonous involvement augers multiple positive outcomes, including more equitable and socially just adaptation to climate change.

The 50-year-old non-profit International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, IWGIA, joined the Inuit council in immediately responding with a statement. “While these (IPCC) affirmations represent a significant step forward, more decisive actions are still needed to strengthen Indigenous Peoples’ effective participation in climate governance,” they said. The Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities and the Pastoralists Indigenous NGO Forum took part in analyzing the IPCC report.

They offered a series of recommendations to enhance Indigenous Peoples’ participation in the next IPCC cycle and in national climate governance. Among them was: Include Indigenous representatives in national delegations in climate change conferences and intergovernmental fora — strengthening both the capacities of U.N. member states and Indigenous Peoples for such participation.

Also advised: Fortify monitoring and reporting systems for the effective engagement of Indigenous Peoples and knowledge holders; establish grievance mechanisms to ensure the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives. Additionally: Create permanent mechanisms for the participation of Indigenous Peoples in national climate governance.

The organizations further called on the IPCC to “affirm, acknowledge, welcome, and provide the resources to strengthen Indigenous communities’ capacity, based on the Indigenous knowledge systems and customary institutions of the Indigenous Peoples concerned.”

Most significantly, they stressed, Native involvement should be recognized as rooted in worldviews that can point the way to climate problem-solving. This means putting Indigenous representatives in the driver’s seat, not just inviting them to ride along. For example, lead authors and directors should be drawn from the aboriginal constituencies.

By the time of the report from Working Group 3, another step for progress on the issue had been taken. It pointed to “colonialism”, not only as a driver of the climate crisis, but also as an ongoing issue that is exacerbating Indigenous communities’ vulnerability to climate change.

Jade Begay, Climate Justice director at the non-profit NDN Collective responded, “Indigenous Peoples have suffered the brunt of colonialism – and though we have contributed to climate change the least, are suffering from its impacts the most.

Citing “the continued violence and displacement caused by colonialism,” she called out carbon offset schemes – euphemistically dubbed nature-based remedies — as “perfect examples of popular so-called climate solutions that are rooted in a continued colonization mindset and do even more harm by inviting grabs of Indigenous land and warping of our knowledge.”

She concluded: “The inclusion of colonialism in the report gives policymakers no excuse to continue enacting climate policies that don’t include reparations and real solutions to increasing loss and damages. World leaders must actively involve Indigenous leadership in all climate solutions, in order to achieve climate, social, and economic justice.”