A historic number of Native Americans are running for political office this year in congressional, state legislative and gubernatorial races. Although candidates are running on a variety of platforms, candidates like Deb Haaland put the environment front and center. Haaland, who is making a bid for Congress in New Mexico, is committed to addressing climate change through a transition to 100 percent renewable energy. “The fight for Native American rights is also a fight for climate justice,” she said in an interview
In the U.S. Native American reservations represent only 2 percent of the land but hold approximately 20 percent of the country’s fossil fuel reserves, including coal, oil and gas. Together these fuels are worth some $1.5 trillion, according to the Council of Energy Resource Tribes. Whereas some have called for privatizing and exploiting native lands to unleash the economic potential of fossil fuels, many indigenous leaders from both the U.S. and other countries disagree with this approach.
Patricia Gualinga, for example, the international relations director for the Sarayaku indigenous community of the Ecuadorian Amazon, has traveled around the world to fight fossil-fuel exploitation—including the United Nations’ annual climate change meetings, where I first met her. Following the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City she wrote in a blog: “The Sarayaku indigenous people believe that instead of bringing ‘development,’ the oil industry is destructive for indigenous society, nonindigenous society, the planet and nature.”
This worldview gives considerable weight to the social, cultural, ecological and sacred value of land over the purely economic, and it was evident in the Standing Rock conflict, where thousands of indigenous peoples and allies challenged the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The project was suspended by Pres. Barack Obama, but under the administration of Donald Trump it was approved and completed last year. Oil has begun to flow under Lake Oahe, the main water source for local communities and a sacred site for the Lakota and Dakota peoples.
In addition to approving the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, the Trump administration has introduced numerous policies to promote fossil-fuel development as a strategy for job creation. To be sure, stimulating energy-related employment is important, but fossil fuels are the wrong place to look: It is well documented that the renewable energy sector is not only better for the environment but also better at job creation. According to a World Bank report, wind and solar produce about 13.5 jobs per $1 million spent in the U.S. compared with the 5.2 jobs created in oil and gas and 6.2 in coal.
Furthermore, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, whereas the number of U.S. jobs in coal, oil and gas have declined in recent years, the workforces for solar and wind power increased by 25 and 32 percent, respectively, in 2016 alone. The future of employment in the energy sector—including construction workers, technicians and engineers—lies in renewable energy not fossil-fuel extraction.
This fact has not been lost on those advocating for renewable energy on native land. Given the current economic challenges of the coal industry in Arizona, exemplified by the scheduled closing of the Navajo Generating Station in 2019, Jihan Gearon, executive director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, is calling for a transition to renewable energy on the Navajo Nation to create jobs and support tribal sovereignty.
Tribal sovereignty has been consistently undermined by fossil-fuel development, as evidenced by the Trump administration’s recent unleashing of two million formerly protected acres in Bears Ears National Monument for oil and gas extraction. The monument was designated by Obama at the request of several Southwestern tribes including the Navajo, Ute, Paiute, Hopi and Zuni, who claim ancestral and ongoing ties to the land. Given the growing impacts of climate change, instead of opening new areas to drilling we should respect the demands of indigenous people and keep fossil fuels in the ground.
Honoring such demands would also dovetail with arguments by leading climate scientists that the best, perhaps only, way to reduce emissions is to stop extracting fossil fuels. According to a 2015 study by Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins at University College London, more than 80 percent of coal, half of gas and one third of oil reserves must be left untouched in order to stay beneath the 2-degree Celsius upper limit for global warming set by the Paris agreement.
Meanwhile climate inaction carries an enormous price tag. Last year alone the types of extreme weather events likely to increase in a warmer world, such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, have cost the U.S. an estimated $150 billion to $200 billion. Avoiding these costs will greatly strengthen the economy in the long run. This is even more evidence in support of a just transition to renewable energy that represents our best bet for protecting people and the planet.
It is time world leaders honor indigenous sovereignty over their ancestral lands and promote renewable energy as an important strategy for mitigating global climate change.