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

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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.

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  1. In a few jurisdictions, Indigenous peoples enjoy a higher level of protection and greater inclusion in decision-making regarding environmental issues, climate change, and resource development projects. While Canada has been dealing with its own dark history of injustices toward Indigenous peoples (Youdelis 2016; Mosby 2013), the rights of Indigenous peoples here do appear to have greater levels of protection than in the US, perhaps in part due to the codification of the duty to consult Indigenous peoples concerning new resource development in the Constitution. The courts have upheld this obligation, most recently overturning the government approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project due to governmental failures to adequately consult with Indigenous peoples. In Canada’s Northern Territories, devolution has led to more equitable processes (Natcher 2001). Here, legislative examples may be found in the “Umbrella Final Agreement” of ANWR-bordering Yukon (Council of Yukon First Nations 1993) and the “Yukon Forum,” which are regular meetings between the Yukon Government, Yukon First Nations, and the Council of Yukon First Nations—in June 2018 the Yukon Forum added fish and wildlife to its joint priority action plan (Yukon Government 2018). Opportunities for inclusion of Indigenous groups in decision-making can also be used to leverage and assert Indigenous sovereignty and governance. For example, community-based monitoring (CBM) agreements between the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council (YRITWC) and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) represents an opportunity for self-governance and maintaining a sense of stewardship. This transboundary collaboration between Alaskan (USA) and Yukon (Canada) Indigenous groups is supported by a memorandum of understanding with the USGS to jointly cooperate in a water monitoring program using USGS protocols and methods, while respecting Indigenous knowledge and worldviews (Wilson et al. 2018). For additional examples of water management and climate modeling that include Indigenous peoples, see Tan et al. 2012 (Australia) and Bark et al. 2012 (USA and Australia).


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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.

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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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Correspondence to Debra Davidson.

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Zentner, E., Kecinski, M., Letourneau, A. et al. Ignoring Indigenous peoples—climate change, oil development, and Indigenous rights clash in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Climatic Change 155, 533–544 (2019).

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