Tribes: The Overlooked U.S. Climate Delegate

Tribes: The Overlooked U.S. Climate Delegate
High Country News
Cancun, Mexico

Tribes: The Overlooked U.S. Climate Delegate

This post appeared in High Country News

The Cancun dust has settled, though I can’t shake the images of tourist luxury.

As one of 10 Earth Journalism Network U.S. Climate Media Fellows I spent two weeks last December reporting the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change COP16 summit, hosted by Mexico at Cancun’s opulent Moon Palace Golf and Spa Resort.

Numbed by my own hotel’s surreal landscape, I spent room time on the balcony watching a turquoise surf crash onto the sparkling white sands favored by tourists. Never mind that they were sucked from the ocean’s floor to replace coarser gray sand, the rhythmic sound reminded me of Pacific Northwest coastlines and lessened my startle response. By late afternoon immense shadows cast by high-rise hotels sent tourists scurrying inside, and then it was just the Caribbean and me.

Dec. 11, the day I flew home, delegates from 193 countries emerged triumphant after pulling an all-nighter with the ‘Cancun Agreements.’ And though I’d been there to cover the involvement of Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples at the talks, missing from the U.S. delegation was a representative for the 565 federally recognized tribes in the U.S.

Indian reservations occupy 55 million acres, or more than two percent of the area of the United States. Federal agencies are required to consult with Tribes on all issues of common interest. The tribes have requested that the U.S. include a tribal leader on their climate delegation, yet there is no engagement by the U.S. with the Tribes in these climate negotiations.

That lack of tribal representation is a grave concern of the National Tribal Environmental Council and the National Congress of American Indians. In lieu of an official representative, NTEC’s senior policy analyst and attorney Bob Gruenig, and NCAI’s staff attorney Kim Gottschalk requested three different meetings with the U.S. delegation in Cancun.

“We were stonewalled,” says Gruenig. “The U.S. delegation didn’t even make an attempt to include a tribal perspective. It was a replay of Copenhagen. Tribes didn’t get that meeting, either.”

Tribes need representation on the U.S. delegation. A key element of the UNFCCC is that parties should act to protect the climate system “on the basis of equality and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”

The principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” includes two fundamental elements. The first is the common responsibility of Parties to protect the environment, or parts of it, at the national, regional and global levels. The second is the need to take into account the different circumstances, particularly each Party’s contribution to the problem and its ability to prevent, reduce and control the threat.

Consider Alaska’s indigenous residents, experiencing some of the earliest and worst disruptions wrought by the changing climate. “It costs $100 to $400 million to move a community, according to a GAO report,” says Gruenig. “Eleven (Alaskan) villages need to be moved, but there’s no policy in place. Nor are Tribes getting any financial or technical resources.”

Another climate crisis is happening on the Navajo Nation, parts of which are drying into a dust bowl as climate changes worsen an already severe drought. The Pacific Ocean is acidifying, with negative impacts to the natural resources of coastal tribes. And so it goes.

The UNFCCC is an important forum that requires the involvement of Tribes as climate change implicates every aspect of Indigenous rights: Self-determination; lands, territories, and natural resources; the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC); traditional knowledge; and full and effective participation in all matters affecting them.

“Tribes live with the daily and disproportionate impacts of such change,” says Gruenig. “It is crucial that they become involved.”

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