Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Native American Protests in North Dakota Are About More Than an Oil Pipeline

By Jared Keller

On Wednesday, some 31 nations officially joined the landmark Paris climate agreement at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The action, which marked a significant policy milestone in the slow international battle against climate change, came one day after some 375 leading scientists published an open letter to world leaders urging them to address the indisputable presence of climate change and its consequences worldwide.

...But the real climate change action isn’t taking place in New York; it’s in North Dakota. Last week, a federal appeals court halted the construction of a crucial section of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, the Associated Press reports. The order came in response to an emergency injunction filed by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. The tribe claims the $3.8 billion pipeline, which would run 1,200 miles from the Dakotas to Illinois and carry 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day, could pollute community water supplies (a real concern since the United States’ crude oil pipelines spill far more than trains, per the International Energy Agency) and irrevocably damage sacred tribal lands and historical sites. The injunction is part of a larger lawsuit against pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners for “razing areas on private land that the tribe’s cultural expert recently discovered were significant,” as NPR put it.

...The emergency injunction itself isn’t unusual. The Huffington Post points out that the government agencies have essentially been approving oil and gas pipelines without environmental impact analyses since the Keystone XL controversy; as a result, various tribal communities in Washington and Montana have taken legal action to protect their sacred lands. But more than the appeals court’s decision, the most significant aspect of the saga unfolding in North Dakota is the protests by Native Americans and environmentalist allies that precipitated the court’s ruling. Just last week, thousands of people flooded an encampment at the construction site outside of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in what the AP characterized as “the largest gathering of Native Americans in a century.” The pipeline protests include representatives from hundreds of Native American tribes, ardent environmental activists, and even a celebrity or two, according to Reuters.

 These protests aren’t just about the displacement of yet another Native American tribe, but rather center on a larger jeremiad against the destruction of the planet. And more so than any Prius-driving hippie or grandstanding politician, the Standing Rock Sioux may signal the dawn of a new type of climate politics—based less on affirming the scientific reality of climate change and more on the immediate consequences of a warming planet.

...Central to the North Dakota protests is the idea of climate justice, the notion that climate change’s disproportionate impact on various communities makes it a ethico-political issue rather than simply an environmental one. Climate justice is a tricky doctrine to sell in a country where one-third of the members of Congress don’t believe climate change is even real (although 64 percent of U.S. adults say they’re actually concerned about it, according to Gallup). As such, changing the public’s perception of climate change as a humanitarian crisis rather than a scientific phenomenon is essential to sounding the alarm.

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