• Protestors against Dakota Access pipeline march in Washington. First Nations people have often clashed with the Trump Administration on environmental policy. (AAP)
When Syria told United Nations climate change talks in Germany on Tuesday that it would join the Paris Agreement, it was another kick for climate scientists and Indigenous people in the United States.
By
Rachael Hocking

9 Nov 2017 - 9:28 AM  UPDATED 9 Nov 2017 - 9:40 AM

At its heart, the Paris Agreement aims to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius by 2100.

The Obama administration ratified the 2015 landmark treaty, but US President Donald Trump announced earlier this year that he would pull out, saying the pact did not serve US interests. When Syria officially signs the treaty, it will mean the United States is the only country in the world not on board.

The United States’ position in particular affects millions of Indigenous people who come from more than 500 nations – and all face their own unique climate challenges.

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Speaking to NITV, Associate Professor Kyle Powys Whyte who is a member of the Potawatomi Nation and studies Indigenous peoples’ responses to climate change said the situation is frustrating.

“Indigenous people are going to be facing climate change risks in a way that’s much more severe than other populations. So the decline in funding and support potentially for climate change planning in the US is very troubling for many tribes,” he said.

Tribes preparing for climate change on their own

From the desert to the arctic to the great lakes, America's Indigenous tribes have been preparing for the impacts of climate change, in fact Professor Whyte says in many ways Indigenous groups have been on the front foot. 

“What really drives me crazy is that up until the current Trump republican administration, Indigenous people in the United States were among the leaders globally in doing their own planning for climate change," he said.

“Well over 50 tribes in the United States have their own climate change plans – and that was bolstered and motivated in part by the fact that the Obama Administration was taking steps to address climate change.”

These plans include ways of adapting to changes in climate, but also mitigating further effects. When tribes have to consider relocation (due to coastal erosion and other changes), plans are being written on their terms, to try and ensure as little impact on culture and community as possible. This was the case for the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe in Louisiana, labelled the first American 'climate refugees' by the New York Times last year. 

Since US President Donald Trump's election in 2016, Professor Whyte says many of the plans that have been carefully put together by tribes are at risk of losing crucial funding and support. 

“It’s been so frustrating to watch the change in the United States, because it really is in some ways a disrespect to all the tribes that took so much leadership."

Indigenous knowledges crucial in efforts to combat climate change

Professor Whyte is visiting Australia this week as a guest of the Sydney Environmental Institute, to help bring awareness to Indigenous issues and climate justice.

He says it is vital to have Indigenous knowledges included in the conversation when it comes to finding solutions to climate change.

“[Indigenous people] bring an entirely different knowledge of history, a different moral relationship to the environment, and a different understanding of how society needs to change to be more sustainable,” he said.

“If you exclude out voices, not only do you exclude great knowledge about the environment, but you also exclude the fact that we’re among the population suffering the most from environmental issues.

“And there are some solutions to issues like climate change that will help white people or other populations – but won’t help us.” 

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