Arctic Native Leaders: Paris Climate Agreement Didn’t Address Indigenous Rights

Dec 18, 2015

A disappointing climate plan for indigenous leaders …

Reggie Joule says the plan to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions that emerged from the Paris climate talks last week didn’t include some very important provisions.

“We were definitely trying to get, in the binding part of the agreement, the recognition of the rights of indigenous people,” said Joule, the mayor of Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough. “And that did not make it in. And that was a little – that was disappointing.”

Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor Reggie Joule accompanied a delegation of Arctic indigenous leaders attending the U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Paris.
Credit Northwest Arctic Borough

Joule sat in on the climate talks as an observer with the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, or ICC, which represents native peoples of northern Alaska, Canada, Greenland and northeast Russia. The ICC and Saami Council, which represents indigenous peoples of northern Scandinavia and Russia, were among many indigenous-rights groups and thousands of other delegates whose main objective was a broad agreement to slow global climate change.

“The rights of indigenous peoples wasn’t one of the major issues of a lot of the countries,” he said.

That’s wrong, says Jim Gamble, executive director of the Aleut International Association, which represents native peoples of the Aleutian Islands and far eastern Russia. Because the Arctic is suffering rising temperatures and other climate-change impacts much faster than the rest of the planet.

Aleut International Association Executive Director Jim Gamble
Credit AIA

“So any agreement that doesn’t take into account that people live in the Arctic and indigenous people are really on the front lines of this change – that’s a missed opportunity,” Gamble said.

It’s also unfair, says Evon Peter, a Gwich’in Athabaskan and University of Alaska-Fairbanks vice chancellor. Unfair, he says, because indigenous peoples didn’t cause global warming.

“And yet, they’re the most directly impacted by climate change,” Peter said. “You see the reflection of that – to bring it local here in Alaska – to the erosion of land on coastal communities, around the villages...”

Evon Peter, vice chancellor for Rural, Community and Native Education at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks
Credit UAF

Other observers point say it’s ironic that the climate agreement gives indigenous peoples such a small voice, and yet it assigns a huge role to the mainly wilderness areas in which they live, which would serve as “carbon sinks” to absorb and offset emissions from developed and developing countries.

Joule, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference observer, says he hopes indigenous peoples will be given greater accord in the next global climate-change conference to be held three years from now.

Editor's note: This story has been revised to include background information about aboriginal-peoples' concerns over designating areas in which they live as carbon sinks, to offset global carbon emissions.