Complex, but not Complicated: Indigenous People are Raising the Bar on the Climate Change Dialogue

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In this edition of Governing Past the Next Election, the IOG’s Ross Holden examines the issue of climate change and the policy approach of Indigenous peoples. Unlike the current electoral debate on climate change, Indigenous peoples understand the complexity of climate change and that it will require a combination of adaptation, investment in renewable energy technology andcarbon pricing.

Complex, but not Complicated: Indigenous People are Raising the Bar on the Climate Change Dialogue

By: Ross Holden, Vice President, Indigenous Governance and Self-Determination, Institute on Governance

In the September 4, 2019 edition of the IOG/Ipsos Governing Past the Next Election series, “The Climate is Changing; Why Can’t the Debate?,” Dr. Warren Mabee from Queen’s University observed that Canadians are increasingly united on the need for a comprehensive and credible strategy to address climate change, but are divided on what such a strategy would look like. Mabee concludes that, in order to win broad-based public support for an effective climate change plan, a new government will have to bring forward in a frank and transparent manner demonstrably effective policies that reflect the complexity of climate change, and are responsive to the promise, and limitations, of both carbon pricing, and investments in new technology.

More than any other community, jurisdiction or constituency in Canada, Indigenous peoples are keenly aware of the impact of climate change, and the complexity of crafting policy approaches to address it. As noted by the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, “Indigenous peoples are among the first to face the direct consequences of climate change, due to their dependence upon, and close relationship with, the environment and its resources. Internationally, “Climate change exacerbates the difficulties already faced by Indigenous communities including political and economic marginalization, loss of land and resources, human rights violations, discrimination and unemployment.”

Indigenous peoples in Canada are by no means immune to any of the impacts highlighted by the Permanent Forum, although some are more readily apparent than others. As stated by Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Perry Bellegarde, “First Nations are often the first to feel the disproportionate impacts of climate change and must deal with the serious and devastating effects including forest fires, flooding and food insecurity.” In Canada’s north, thawing permafrost, shorter and milder winters, and changing ecosystems are negatively impacting traditional harvesting, infrastructure, human health, and culture, particularly for the Inuit. The Métis Nation of Canada (MNC) has highlighted the negative impact on Metis health and identity as a result of climate change impacts on traditional harvesting.

At the same time, Indigenous peoples living in northern climates are dependent on expensive, carbon-intensive sources of energy, food and other goods and services. As noted by the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) in their 2019 National Inuit Climate Change Strategy, “Most of us live in off-grid communities where the cost of living is two to three times higher than in southern Canada.” The result, ITK concludes, is that they are “disproportionately vulnerable to climate policies that target carbon intensive goods and services if proactive measures are not taken to mitigate the impacts of those actions on our already high energy, food and transportation costs.”

This paradox - both the most vulnerable to climate change, and the most reliant on the use of carbon-intensive fuel – places Indigenous people in a difficult position: They acknowledge that, in the immediate term, their priority must be adaptation, but over the longer-term they must work to influence broader carbon reduction policy development. Despite the fact that many of their northern and remote communities are off-grid and thus dependent on carbon producing diesel fuel, Indigenous communities’ contribution to climate change is infinitesimal. And yet they are determined to take a leadership role in addressing both adaptation and carbon emissions through a combination of community-driven monitoring, carbon pricing and renewable technology. It is for this reason that addressing climate change has emerged as the top policy priority for First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. It is also the reason they have endorsed the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change(“PCF”).

The PCF, developed between 2015-2016 in collaboration with the AFN, ITK and MNC, most of the provinces (with the exception of Manitoba and Saskatchewan) and the three territories, consists of four pillars to address climate change in Canada: pricing carbon pollution; complementary measures to further reduce emissions across the economy; measures to adapt to the impacts of climate change and build resilience; and actions to accelerate innovation, support clean technology, and create jobs.

Indigenous peoples in Canada recognize that a combination of adaptation, investment in renewable energy technology andcarbon pricing are essential components of a policy mix for addressing climate change in Canada. They understand that this will require the diversion of scarce resources, and increase their cost of living in the short-to-medium term, but are confident that that is a small price to pay for leaving the planet in better shape for future generations. Their endorsement of the PCF signals that they are willing and able to work with elected governments to meaningfully respond to climate change. The challenge for a new government will be to demonstrate that it also is willing to consider a comprehensive collaborative approach to act on the complexity of climate change in an effective manner.

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This article is the sixth in the Governing Past the Next Election series with Ipsos Canada. You can visit the series webpage here.

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About the author

Ross Holden

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