Ignoring Indigenous peoples—climate change, oil development, and Indigenous rights clash in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

  • Emilie Zentner
  • Maik Kecinski
  • Angeline Letourneau
  • Debra DavidsonEmail author


The politics of climate change are the politics of energy and in turn the politics of Indigenous people’s rights. The clash of these political realms is nowhere more vivid than the north slope of Alaska, where the acute impacts of climate change to the livelihoods of Alaska Indigenous peoples places energy development decision-making in a new light. Considering the elevated exposure and sensitivity to the impacts of climate change, the development of oil and gas resources in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska will exacerbate the acute livelihood challenges already being faced by the Indigenous peoples of this region. The tendency to marginalize the rights of Indigenous peoples in US natural resource development planning, moreover, constitutes a missed opportunity for advancing development decision-making toward more effective socio-ecological planning in the context of climate change. Indigenous communities in the North are uniquely qualified, both as sovereign peoples and as knowledge holders, to enrich government policy and decision-making about development in the context of climate change, constituting strong justification for their involvement in the planning process. This article integrates recently published research with an in-depth in-person interview with the Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. We argue that accommodation of the cumulative threats posed by climate change and development to the rights of Indigenous communities in oil development plans for the Coastal Plain area of the ANWR will be essential to protect the livelihoods of these communities and the ecosystems within which they live.



The authors would like to thank Bernadette Demientieff, Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit” (The Sacred Place Where Life Begins) for her participation. The authors are grateful to Jacob Fooks, Kaitlynn Ritchie, Sandeep Mohapatra, two anonymous referees, and the editor for their insightful comments which improved this article.

Author contributions

Zentner contributed to the design, interview, and writing of the manuscript; Kecinski contributed to the design, interview, GIS map, and writing of the manuscript; Letourneau contributed GIS map and writing of the manuscript; Davidson contributed to the writing of the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Resource Economics and Environmental SociologyUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada

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