A Glacier State Congressman Cites Climate Change as Basis for Nuclear Energy Legislation
Senator John Barrasso, a Republican representing the glacier state of Wyoming, is chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. On April 24, Barrasso released a draft act reforming U.S. nuclear waste policy, to ensure the federal government’s legal obligations to dispose of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste are fulfilled. His reason? Climate change.
“When John Barrasso, a Republican from oil and uranium-rich Wyoming who has spent years blocking climate change legislation, introduced a bill this year to promote nuclear energy, he added a twist: a desire to tackle global warming.
Mr. Barrasso’s remarks
— “If we are serious about climate change, we must be serious about
expanding our use of nuclear energy” — were hardly a clarion call to
action. Still they were highly unusual for the lawmaker who, despite
decades of support for nuclear power and other policies that would
reduce planet-warming emissions, has until recently avoided talking
about them in the context of climate change.
The comments represent an important shift among Republicans in Congress. Driven by polls showing that voters in both parties — particularly younger Americans — are increasingly concerned about a warming planet, and prodded by the new Democratic majority in the House shining a spotlight on the issue, a growing number of Republicans are now openly discussing climate change and proposing what they call conservative solutions.”
Major UN Meeting Raises Minority Rights Issues in Asia’s Glaciated Mountain Areas
The United Nation’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues held its annual meeting in New York City April 22 – May 3. There was significant debate about China’s treatment of minority peoples in the glaciated western provinces, Tibet and Xinjiang. The UN Press reports:
“Despite scattered gains in land, language and legal rights, a glaring lack of political will around the world is inhibiting fundamental change on the ground in thousands of communities in every region, delegates told the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues today as it continued its work.
Achievements outlined by Member State representatives today were
starkly overshadowed by grave concerns – including high youth suicide
rates, social exclusion and widespread political apathy – raised by many
speakers, as the Permanent Forum concluded its general discussion on
“implementation of the six mandated areas of the Permanent Forum with
reference to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous
Peoples”. The six areas are economic and social development, culture,
the environment, education, health and human rights.
Across these areas – from land marred by war or extractive industries’ activities to ignorance about indigenous history and languages – speakers called on Governments and the Permanent Forum alike to urgently take the kind of actions that will have a direct, positive impact on their communities.”
An Early Warning System for Peru’s GLOF-Prone Lake Palcacocha
In northwestern Peru, government officials announced plans to install an early warning system to alert downstream populations of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) from the Andean glacier lake, Palcacocha,
The lake has a history of GLOFs . Most recently, an avalanche from a calving glacier above the lake on February 5 triggered a wave that tested the moraine holding back the glacial meltwater. The regional capital, Huaraz, which lies downstream, is the second most populous city of the Peruvian Andes.
Peruvian news outlet El Comercio reported on the new warning system, which is expected to take one year to complete.
An organization of tribal leaders representing Indian Nations in the Dakotas and Nebraska has called for a name change of Yellowstone National Park’s Mt. Doane and Hayden Valley.
Mt. Doane, a 10,500-foot peak located in the Absaroka Range along the eastern boundary of the park, was named after Gustavus Doane, an American lieutenant who played a major role in a large massacre of Native peoples in 1870. Tribes across the United States and Canada have joined a petition to change the name of Mt. Doane to “First Peoples Mountain.”
In addition, a number of groups have called to change the name of Hayden Valley, a major attraction located in the center of Yellowstone National Park. The valley was created by glacial retreat about13,000 years ago. However, like Mt. Doane, the name of the valley is contentious. It was named after Ferdinand V. Hayden, a geologist and surveyor who advocated for removal of Native Americans.
A recent incident shows the importance of a social movement in shaping a glacier protection law in Chile. Representatives from indigenous and environmental groups testified in April that the draft law— which designates glaciers as protected areas and limits activities that can damage them— has glaring loopholes that would leave glaciers and the people who depend on them unprotected. They urged the Commision on Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples to review the proposedlaw.
The group, the Coordination of Territories in Defense of Glaciers, is a coalition of organizations from northern and central regions in Chile with glaciers. According to an article posted by the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA), the group’s message was received positively by representatives on the commission, which is part of the lower house of the Chilean legislature. The article was signed by several groups advocating for glacier protection, including the Coordination of Territories. It was posted by the indigenous media blog Mapu Express as well.
According to the article, advocates for communities living alongside glaciers argued that these communities need to be able to secure their water rights in order to survive. Central and northern areas are the most dependent on glacial waters, and glaciers there would be left vulnerable by the law, advocates argue. They also point out that Chile is currently experiencing a prolonged water shortage.
The draft law is currently under review within the Environment Ministry, and the group asked the Commission of Human and Indigenous Rights to review it.
These advocates stated in an earlier post that industry interests have ensured that “Ningún glaciar quedará protegido”: Not one glacier would be protected. The groups are aligned against mining interests, including the state-owned copper company CODELCO and Consejo Minero, a mining industry group. Representatives on the committee acknowledged the role of mining interests in opposing glacier protection; Deputy Roberto Poblete, who sits on the committee, singled out Barrick Gold, a large mining company that operates in Chile, as an example of the forces at work against the law’s efficacy.
Conflict between mining groups and local activists are taking place in other parts of the world as well, including Kyrgyzstan, as GlacierHub recently covered. The issue has also been picked up in American popular culture, on the TV show Madam Secretary.
Chileans have been pressing their government to protect glaciers in law since 2014, when plans were announced to expand Chile’s largest mine, further impacting glaciers. Greenpeace started an advocacy campaign called “Glacier Republic” in which it jokingly claimed to declare Chile’s glaciers an independent country. Greenpeace’s efforts combined with those of a handful of Chilean politicians and grassroots activists. A march of two thousand people called for Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to protect the glaciers in law. Discussion of glacier protection in the law followed, and a group within Chile’s legislature advanced a bill to protect glaciers. GlacierHub reported in 2015 that though progress was made in bringing a law to the table, there was uncertainty in how far it would go to protect glaciers.
The Chilean groups testified last month that the draft bill did not go far enough. In January, advocates detailed that the law’s impact would be severely limited. That’s because the law would require that a glacier be in a “Pristine Region,” a park or national reserve, or part of a declared Strategic Glacier Reserve to be protected. They wrote that there are several loopholes that could prevent glaciers that fall under these conditions from being protected. One of these loopholes is a legal provision that parkland can be opened to economic development if permission is granted by the government.
These advocates further state that most glaciers would not qualify for protection under these three categories. Small glaciers, found in the northern regions, and types of terrain that function alongside glaciers, such as permafrost, are vulnerable, they argue. They also argue that mining activity in these excluded areas would lead to the fragmentation of glacial ecosystems. Also, the law would not prohibit mining that results in suspended dust or underground activities, which are the most dangerous for these water sources. According to the advocates, at the meeting last month, they argued that the law legalizes and standardizes the destruction of glaciers, rather than protecting them.
Estefanía González, a spokesperson for Greenpeace, in an article in the online newspaper El Mostrador, stated that Greenpeace has remained active in advocating for a strong glacier protection law, and issued a call for attendance at a march for the Defense and Restoration ofWater and Lands in Temuco, Chile to denounce it. The march was held on April 23, and was attended by an estimated 4,500 people.
González echoed the indigenous groups’ comments and also drew parallels to other nearby countries who were fighting similar battles. In Colombia, activists are fighting to protect tundra as a water resource, and in Argentina, where Barrick Gold, a mining company, is consuming 9 million liters of water per day in the zone where a water emergency was declared, Gonzalez stated in El Mostrador.
Members of the Council expressed their sympathy with the message. The advocates wrote. Deputy Gabriel Boric described access to water as an inalienable human right. However, the representatives pointed out that they fought an uphill battle against big business interests that had a strong hold on Chilean politics. Deputy Hugo Gutiérrez, from the Communist Party, compared the law with the Fisheries Act, which was originally designed to promote sustainable use of marine resources but actually ended up supporting large fishing companies while disadvantaging independent fishermen. Protests erupted in 2015 over this issue.
Council members pledged to do their utmost to take the glacier law under review to examine its human rights impact, even in the face of political and industry pressure. The difficulties which they acknowledge shows the obstacles faced by legislation that favors environmental protection, in Chile as in other countries around the world.
UNESCO held a conference on indigenous people and climate change on 26-27 November in Paris, as a lead-up to COP21, the major annual conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UNESCO conference, entitled “Resilience in a Time of Uncertainty: Indigenous peoples and climate change,” drew over 60 speakers and an audience of over 650 people in plenary and parallel sessions and side-events. The event was unusual for its success in bringing indigenous people—from North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the Pacific—in direct dialogue and exchange with scientists and with policy-makers. Though the specific cases varied greatly, they also shared some common elements. They show that indigenous groups are addressing the threats of climate change, along with the strong pressures which capitalist economies and modern bureaucratic states place on indigenous land rights and autonomy.
The numerous papers focused on the complementarities of indigenous and scientific knowledge about climate change. In contrast with some other discussions of the topic, which suggest that climate change has created unprecedented changes which render indigenous knowledge outdated and of little practical use, a number of presentations at the conference emphasized the dynamic nature of indigenous knowledge, and documented its ability to serve as a basis for the development of new forms of activity—pastoral and agricultural practices, land management (including controlled forest burns), internally-directed migration—which serve to adapt to climate change and to promote resilience.
This conference, organized by UNESCO and the French National Museum of Natural History, and Tebtebba, also received support from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sweden, the United National Development Programme, Sorbonne University, Conservation International, the National Research Agency of France and the Japanese Funds in Trust to UNESCO. It opened with talks by leading figures, including representatives of major Western institutions, such as Flavia Schlegel, the Assistant Director-General for the Natural Sciences of UNESCO, and Bruno David, the director of the French National Museum of Natural History, who discussed the reliance of indigenous peoples on natural resources and their vulnerability in the face of climate change. There were addresses as well by indigenous leaders, such as Cacique Raoni Metuktire of the Kayapó of Brazil, and Hindou Oumarou, a Mbororo from Chad, representing the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change and the Association of Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad; they recognized this vulnerability while emphasizing the long history of struggle and the effective resilience of indigenous peoples. Raoni’s energetic oratory and Oumarou’s evocation of human rights and sustainable development created strong impressions on the audience. Nicolas Hulot, the French Special Envoy for the Protection of the Planet, offered a provocative contrast, noting that indigenous peoples are often called “first peoples” and that current human generations will become the “last peoples” if climate change is not addressed.
The specific presentations, too numerous to be all summarized here, presented vivid accounts of the confrontations of indigenous peoples with climate change and with pressures on their lands. Minnie Degawan of the Kankanay people of the Philippines and the former Secretary-General of that country’s Cordillera Peoples Alliance, described how the Ibaloi people of Benguet, Philippines, faced with unprecedented weather conditions and land pressures, moved from their original territory to other sections lower down in the same watershed, where they adapted their traditional knowledge to construct terraces and select new crop and tree varieties in this area, but now face pressures from unregulated gold mining. She emphasized the role of religion and ritual in these adaptations.
Lino Mamani, a Quechua from Cusco, Peru, discussed a project in which a number of indigenous communities have created a “potato park” where they experiment with cultivating indigenous potato varieties at different elevations to assess which perform best under the changed climate circumstances. They coordinate with agricultural scientists, raising potatoes in both fields and greenhouses, and linking indigenous taxonomies of potato varieties with laboratory assessments of the DNA of these varieties. Alejandro Argumedo of a Peruvian NGO ANDES, and the coordinator of the International Network of Mountain Indigenous Peoples discussed the exchanges between this program and similar partnerships in Tajikistan, China and Kenya. These cases offer examples of the close interactions of indigenous peoples and natural scientists, and point to the way that these groups can learn from each other.
Tsechu Dolma, a Tibetan-Nepali researcher and organizer who has contributed to GlacierHub, discussed the Mountain resiliency project. In northern Nepal, climate change has brought irregular precipitation and glacier retreat. Working with local communities, this project works to develop activities such as greenhouses and micro-hydropower facilities which can promote food security, energy security and what she terms “talent security”—the promotion of local employment which can reduce youth outmigration. Local community men, women and youth contribute directly to the initial research which scopes out community needs and to the design and implementation of the activities. Dolma emphasized how this expansion of adaptive capacity can turn what would otherwise be climate disasters into manageable climate hazards. Her account documented the ways that investment of community land, labor and knowledge into these activities contributes to their long-term sustainability.
Other cases showed similar processes in other parts of the world. Fuluna Tikoidelaimakotu Tuimoce of Fiji described the revitalization of canoe-making traditions in his country, allowing sea travel once again to serve as an indigenous form of mobility which permits people to draw on the resources of different islands to promote resilience to disasters. Kathleen Galvin, an anthropologist from Colorado State University, discussed the negative combined effects of irregular rainfall and loss of land rights to indigenous pastoralists in East Africa, and spoke positively of the effects of meetings between these pastoralists, Mongolian herders, Native Americans and Euro-American ranchers in developing herd and land management strategies to address these challenges.
Several speakers located this work in the context of international climate policies. Douglas Nakashima and Jen Rubis of UNESCO noted that indigenous peoples have been observing climate change for at least two decades, citing as an example Inuit knowledge of shifting ice conditions and growing weather variability. They traced the growing recognition of indigenous knowledge in key statements and documents, including the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment of 2004, the IPCC’s Fourth and Fifth Impact Assessment Reports, and the Adaptation Committee of the UNFCCC Nairobi Work Program. Their discussion was complemented by a talk by Valerie Masson-Delmotte, the head of the IPCC Working Group I. She emphasized the value of peer reviewed publications on indigenous knowledge for the groups that write the IPCC Assessment Reports.
These discussions led to consideration of further activities, particularly the promotion of further exchanges among indigenous peoples and between indigenous peoples and natural scientists. A number of speakers expressed a wish to expand further the recognition of indigenous knowledge among natural scientists and international climate policy circles, as a means to promote resilience and to advance indigenous rights. The closing address by Irina Bokova, the secretary general of UNESCO, emphasized the longstanding commitment of that organization to indigenous cultures and indigenous rights. It seems likely that the discussions at this conference and the development of ties among the participants will promote such efforts.