Indigenous Peoples’ "Outsized Success" in Confronting Climate Chaos

Indigenous Resistance has stopped or delayed fossil fuel projects worth over 400 new coal plants’ worth of emissions. It's time to recognize that real climate leadership looks like Indigenous Peoples defending the earth.

by Odette Auger

A line of prayer ties separate North Dakota police and water protectors, Standing Rock 2016. Photo by Dallas Goldtooth.

Indigenous resistance worldwide has gifted the world with stopping or delaying greenhouse gas pollution amounting to at least 25 per cent of annual Canadian and US emissions, according to a new report released September first.

Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and Oil Change International worked collaboratively to quantify the impact of ten years of Indigenous resistance on emissions. The resulting report, Indigenous Resistance Against Carbon, “calculates the scale of the greenhouse gas pollution represented by fossil fuel infrastructure that is facing or has faced Indigenous resistance.”

It’s important to note this 25 per cent calculation is an underestimation. The report refines focus on just “the largest and most iconic projects,” to give a snapshot of the efforts of Indigenous climate activists.

Report author Kyle Gracey, a research analyst at Oil Change International, explains the heart behind the report: “We wanted to tell and elevate the stories of Indigenous resistance across Turtle Island. There are so many incredible stories of struggle – and also of success in the fight against fossil fuel infrastructure.”

A key goal, says the report, was “that Indigenous land defenders are emboldened to see the collective results of their efforts and utilize this information as a resource to garner further support.”

Indigenous Resistance Against Carbon

Its other key goal comes as a call that “settler nation-state representatives, organizations, institutions, and individuals recognize the impact of Indigenous leadership in confronting climate chaos and its primary drivers.”

Dallas Goldtooth, of Mdewakanton Dakota and Dińe Nations, leads the Keep It in the Ground Campaign of the IEN. “Recognizing and upholding Indigenous rights benefits the land, waters, and all life on earth,” he says.

“It goes beyond just helping these communities – by recognizing Indigenous rights and upholding them, you are very much a part of building a better, more sustainable world. From government officials to just common people.”

The Indigenous rights framework opened the door for many different fights and struggles, for others to find guidance, he says.

“The vast majority of communities really want to see a future that’s inhabitable for all life on this planet and especially for humans. Indigenous rights speaks to that,” says Goldtooth.

UNDRIP, while bulldozers are at the door

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states it expresses “the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world.”

The good news is that the Canadian government officially endorsed UNDRIP in 2016. The bad news is that even though that’s the minimum, there is still a lack of follow through on what that adoption means in practical terms.

UNDRIP Article 19 says: “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the Indigenous Peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.”

Anishinaabe land defender faces off against North Dakota police forces

Anishinaabe land defender faces off against North Dakota police forces, Standing Rock 2016, photo courtesy of Indigenous Environmental Network.

Free, prior and informed consent means establishing consultation before the beginning of development on ancestral land or using resources in an Indigenous community’s territory. In both Canada and the United States, engagement and consultation is nowhere near what it should be, says the report, for communities who are affected by large-scale fossil fuel projects.

“If the bulldozers are at your door, and then they come to them and ask them for permission to be there, that’s not consultation – that’s coercion in full effect,” says Goldtooth. “And that’s what we’ve seen time after time, the government will come to us when the bulldozers are down the road.”

“That discussion has to start way before construction actually begins. That’s a given, no matter what.”

Outsized success – and repression

The Indigenous rights movement has been holding the colonial state accountable for the constant attack upon Indigenous peoples.

The report notes that Indigenous land defenders have “exercised their rights and responsibilities to not only stop fossil fuel projects in their tracks, but to establish precedents to build successful social justice movements.”

Goldtooth expands upon this, “whether it’s in Canada or in the United States, the very premise is that we live on stolen land. It’s important to understand these are institutions that we make up, we invent them. They didn’t actually exist – human beings invented these institutions that assert different forms of state-sanctioned violence upon different people.”

Goldtooth invites all people to consider “there are other ways of governance, there are other ways of being in relationship to the land, and with each other. Not just as native people, but also non-native folks have a right to have a discussion about whether their systems of governance are actually healthy for them. And what are more healthy options?”

Gracey says the wide range of strategies and tactics can bring in and create space for a wider range of activists. “Also it allows for more potential for collaboration, because of the bigger intent that we’re inviting into, and calling into these struggles.”

“They represent a true threat to the status quo, and the fossil fuel industry. Many of these projects have been stopped. So, you know, that’s why folks are being targeted – because in many ways what they’re doing is working.”

The scale of Indigenous resistance and successes is outsized, more impactful than what people might assume, the report shares. On the other hand, the scale of repression is also disproportionate.

“And not just criminalization of defenders, let’s be clear – murder of defenders in the Indigenous communities is outsized, says Gracey. There is environmental injustice, real social injustice, and racial injustice that is happening where Indigenous folks are on the front lines, in so many places.”

Gracey is referring to the report’s inclusion of dark statistics: in 2020 a Global Witness report, “Defending Tomorrow,” rang the alarm that environmental defenders were being killed at the rate of four per week. The report quotes UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment John Knox describing the global situation as “a culture of impunity, a sense that anyone can kill environmental defenders without repercussions, [and] eliminate anyone who stands in the way.”

The police militarization is the most direct example of how defenders are being criminalized, targeted and killed. Gracey is clear when he explains “it’s also politicians who put those rules into place, who make resistance into a criminal act, when it shouldn’t be. And it’s the companies, and the corporate pockets , to have those politicians put those laws in place to protect their investments and infrastructure.

Many layers of society are complicit – and responsible for criminalization of defenders, and for murder of defenders. “That’s true here as much as it is in other parts of the world,” says Gracey.

“They represent a true threat to the status quo, and the fossil fuel industry. Many of these projects have been stopped. So, you know, that’s why folks are being targeted – because in many ways what they’re doing is working.”

Ongoing struggles, and fights that have been won

Many of these stories build on each other. Gracey explains, “the struggle to stop Keystone XL was one of the catalysts for fighting the Dakota Access pipeline, which is one of the catalysts for fighting Line 3.”

Fossil fuel infrastructure that is facing or has faced Indigenous resistance on Turtle Island adds up to 1.8 billion metric tons in carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e), or 28 per cent of all U.S. and Canadian pollution in 2019, the report measured. Successful shut downs so far include Energy East Oil Pipeline (a reduction of 236 million metric tons CO2e), Keystone XL Oil Pipeline 180, and Northern Gateway Oil Pipeline 102. Emissions were calculated using Oil Change International’s gas pipeline climate methodology and emissions factors developed from data provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Ongoing fights add up to “12 per cent of these nations’ annual pollution, or 808 million metric tons CO2e” to the total reduction in emissions. This includes well-known struggles such as Coastal GasLink pipeline,Trans Mountain Extension and Dakota Access oil pipelines. Together with projects that have been successfully stopped, this would mean Indigenous resistance’s impact could reduce greenhouse gas pollution “to nearly one-quarter (24 per cent) of annual total U.S. and Canadian emissions.”

Purposefully confusing

The report is released in advance of the UN Climate Change conference, COP26, coming up at the end of October. This year is the five-year deadline for countries to reassess their pledges, and how they’re going to address emissions.

“It’s significant because this is an opportunity for both Canada and the United States to go in and say, ‘you know what? We’re not doing enough, we’re going to step up our commitments and pledges,’” says Goldtooth.

Both countries are far behind any of their commitments to stop fossil fuels, says Goldtooth.

“I feel like both Canada and the United States have been purposefully confusing about what climate action means, meaning that both countries are using tricky wording to get away with not shutting down fossil fuel projects and pulling back fossil fuels. Specifically they use words like ‘net zero.’ That’s the big, hot word right now,” Goldtooth says.

Developed countries are promoting carbon markets as a solution, something Goldtooth emphasizes is “effectively saying, we’re going to have the capitalist system solve the problem that capitalism caused. That’s what’s being discussed.”

Politicians market “net zero” as a phrase, hoping people will feel reassured, or positive that their governments are taking action, and are following through with their agreements.

“But ‘net zero’ doesn’t really mean anything,” says Goldtooth. “Nor does it actually address the issue of greenhouse gas emissions. The science says, not only do we need to stop putting greenhouse gases into the air, but we have to start drawing down what’s already there.”

Developed countries are promoting carbon markets as a solution, something Goldtooth emphasizes is “effectively saying, we’re going to have the capitalist system solve the problem that capitalism caused. That’s what’s being discussed.”

“Canada cannot go to the UN climate conferences, and say they’re a climate hero. When they’re pushing through Trans Mountain pipeline, they can’t say they’re a climate hero. If they’re going to be pushing through the Coastal GasLink pipeline, they cannot claim to be gaining ground. If they’re going to continue to build out and develop the tar sands, they’re not a climate hero,” emphasizes Goldtooth. “That’s what science says. That’s what Indigenous communities say. That’s what the citizens and our allies say.”

Gracey offers one positive outcome of the unfortunate need to fight for the earth.

“As people have built up the muscle to resist, that muscle is getting stronger and it’s not going away. Every time we have a win, or a loss – it’s actually growing into this beautiful community of people who are resisting – all across the land.”

Goldtooth calls, “It’s time to wake up.”


Odette Auger, Sagamok Anishnawbek, is a guest on Klahoose, Homalco, Tla’amin territories. She works with IndigenEYEZ, has written and produced for First People’s Cultural Council and Cortes Radio. Her journalism can be found at Watershed Sentinel, IndigiNews, the Discourse, APTN, and the Toronto Star, among other places.

Related Posts

Watershed Sentinel Original Content

5 Issues/yr — $25 print; $15 digital