On June 2, the U.S. Department of the Interior blocked oil and gas leasing for the next twenty years within a ten-mile radius of Chaco Canyon — the site of a Puebloan civilization in now-northern New Mexico dating back over a millennium. Despite some support from people within the Pueblo tribes and Navajo Nation which surround the land, the vast majority of Navajo leaders have opposed these drilling restrictions. It’s essential that climate advocates hear them out.
Between high-profile cases of extractive industries seizing and polluting Indigenous land and the fact that climate change exacerbates the many environmental and economic challenges facing Indigenous communities, the climate movement routinely finds common ground with Indigenous people. But recently, the two groups have found themselves at odds. The Yurok tribe recently succeeded in an effort to have four hydroelectric dams removed from the Klamath River in Northern California, where renewable energy production was disrupting salmon runs. A majority of Alaska Native communities supported the now-approved Willow drilling project in Alaska despite the project’s significant carbon emissions, harm to wildlife, and a viral TikTok movement that spurred a #StopWillow petition with 5.1 million signatures. This conflict over Chaco Canyon drilling could drive yet another wedge between climate zealots and Indigenous people.
Collaboration with these tribes is vital to the climate movement — Indigenous communities have centuries of knowledge regarding environmental stewardship, and often view nature as sacred. Their leadership can help ensure the most sensible and effective climate solutions get implemented. If climate advocates want Indigenous support, we have to listen, build trust, and support their goals too.
Navajos are no stranger to climate change. The American Southwest is experiencing its worst drought in 1,200 years, and peer-reviewed research in Science found human-caused climate change accounted for 47% of 2000-2018 drought severity. Navajos have been hit especially hard — Navajos use 8-10 gallons of water per day (about a tenth of the average American), and 30% of Navajos have no running water.
So when they express opposition to a drilling ban on their land, we can trust they’ve weighed the pros and cons. Within the Navajo Nation, 35.8% of households have incomes below the federal poverty threshold, and about 10% live without electricity. The Chaco Canyon drilling ban would strip an energy source from the Navajo Nation, and could cost Navajos an estimated $194 million over the next two decades.
Knowing these challenges, there could be opportunities for dialogue. Navajo land has an abundance of solar, wind, and geothermal resources. Rather than banning an energy source, the U.S. could prioritize offering technical or financial support for projects that allow Navajos to capitalize on clean energy, generate needed electricity, and even export to major cities to earn revenue. In 2020, 62% of newly installed renewables for power generation were cheaper than the cheapest fossil fuel alternative, so economically, clean energy might offer a win-win.
But if Navajo leaders are committed to drilling in Chaco Canyon, climate advocates ultimately shouldn’t dwell on it. While individual projects are important to debate, the big picture is far more important. No Indigenous community’s primary goal is fossil fuel extraction or hydroelectric dam quashing. Most communities’ key political mission is full nationhood and self-determination. In fact, it is written into Navajo law that the “ultimate goal of the Navajo Nation is self-determination.”
In addition to its moral and practical advantages, respecting Indigenous communities’ autonomy brings significant climate benefits. A 2019 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report found that while environmental decline is accelerating in many Indigenous communities, it has been “less severe” than in other parts of the world. Indigenous people steward about one fifth of the world’s tropical and subtropical forests, which sequester carbon and mitigate global temperature rise.
Colonization, on the other hand, drove land use changes that worsened climate change. In 1840, European colonizers started confiscating land from the MÄori tribes in New Zealand to chop down their forests for timber, leading present-day New Zealand to have at least 60% fewer forests than before. In the late 1800s, French colonizers in North and West Africa banned locals from practicing subsistence farming, requiring them to chop down their forests for cotton plantations and other crops. Concurrently, British colonizers cut down most wildfire-resistant oak and deodar forests in India and replaced them with large-scale pine plantations for resin. Now, these dry pine needles are responsible for wildfires every summer.
And in the early 1900s, American colonizers brought nonnative drought-resistant grasses to Maui for livestock feed. These grasses spread across the island and exacerbated this month’s fires which were the deadliest in modern U.S. history.
Land use change, principally deforestation, contributes 12-20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If Indigenous self-determination could right some of these ecological wrongs, we shouldn’t resist that.
Smartly, climate leaders are now looking to Indigenous communities for guidance, welcoming more than 300 members of the Indigenous Peoples Caucus to last year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Egypt. That collaboration only works if climate leaders listen to challenges facing Indigenous communities too. If the climate movement only spotlights Indigenous perspectives when it’s convenient, that defeats the purpose of listening to them in the first place.
Climate advocates should absolutely voice concerns over projects and seek win-win solutions, but strong-arming Indigenous communities in the name of climate action is a different story. Big picture, the climate movement is best served by embracing Indigenous peoples’ land management knowledge and supporting their efforts for self-determination.
Ethan Brown is a Writer and Commentator for Young Voices with a B.A. in Environmental Analysis & Policy from Boston University. He is the creator and host of The Sweaty Penguin, an award-winning comedy climate program presented by PBS/WNET’s national climate initiative “Peril and Promise.” Follow him on Twitter @ethanbrown5151