Climate Discourse and Legislation: The Green New Deal and How Native Americans Can Have a Seat at the Table

For decades, in an effort to mitigate the climate crisis on native land and globally, Native Americans have been on the frontline of advocates for substantive legislative progress and reparations for minority communities suffering at the hands of climate change. However, with the politicization of the modern climate movement and increased partisan polarization on climate policy solutions, Indigenous Americans are not satisfied with the lackluster byproduct of federal climate bills passed thus far. Indigenous climate activists criticize that most legislation passed on the Hill, like The Clean Air Act, which partners with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce state greenhouse gas emissions, do not use a crucial environmental justice lens and ignore the nuances of environmental racism, which have made BIPOC communities especially vulnerable to climate change in this country, in its formulation of practical policy solutions. 

That is not to say, though, that no legislative proposals have considered the generational climate oppression of Native Americans and included Indigenous people in the climate conversation with lawmakers and white activists. The Green New Deal, in particular, introduced into Congress in 2019 by cosponsors Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), calls for the protection of all historically marginalized communities and recognizes the unjust deprivation of Indigenous land sovereignty. This notorious and progressive proposal—the subject of countless conservative claims of “socialism” during and after the presidential election—was unsurprisingly rejected by a then Republican-controlled Senate. However, with viral popularity and a prodigious crowd-sourced $20 million funneled into funding the Green New Deal Initiative lobbyist group, this piece of legislation will likely return to the House and Senate floors in the near future. 

Termed “indigenizing” in the Green New Deal, Indigenous activists describe the Native presence within the policy as “decolonizing work” in a more extensive pursuit for environmental justice. The novel bill ensures the attainment of “free, prior, and informed consent for all decisions that affect Indigenous peoples and their traditional territories, honoring all treaties and agreements with Indigenous peoples, and protecting and enforcing the sovereignty and land rights of Indigenous peoples.” This language in the Green New Deal promises a radical change from a culture of consultation in environmental projects on reservation land, which is prone to loopholes and infringements to consent. 

This lack of consent led to the Standing Rock protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline set to run through traditional sacred land and Native reservations in North Dakota. Federal law requires “meaningful consultation” in cases involving development projects near trust lands, like the Dakota Access Pipeline. But as Standing Rock made clear, that consultation can too easily be ignored. Consent, and hopefully collaboration, should be the bottom line. The Green New Deal will require Indigenous sovereign bodies before “greenlighting” pipelines or other environmentally damaging projects. The Green New Deal demands that policymakers actively listen to Indigenous concerns about their livelihood and prevents the recurrence of events like Standing Rock. 

Although Indigenous leaders and organizations widely endorse the framework of the Green New Deal, they are looking to build upon the proposal to create and improve policies that are cognizant of their and their ancestors’ lived experiences of persecution and exploitation in this country. When the Green New Deal discusses environmental justice, or “systemic injustices,” tribal nations are lumped in with other “frontline and vulnerable communities.” However, activists believe the government-to-government relationship of tribal nations to the state sets the Indigenous community apart from other communities. Their different histories, political sovereignty, and unique relationships to the land must be highlighted and kept separate from tackling systemic environmental injustices. 

Given the habitual whitewashing of history and dismissal of tribal nationhood, Indigenous peoples are concerned they are not adequately acknowledged in environmental justice policy and the law. Environmental justice policy and law hinge on the fraught concept of environmental racism. Tribal nations and individuals experience racism, but land and treaty violations are rather a matter of the infringement of Indigenous collective political rights — a concept mainstream law has difficulty recognizing — rather than individualistic civil rights, the basis of anti-discrimination law. Younger Indigenous community members are also calling for complete fossil fuel divestment and a cessation of fracking practices, outlined in the amended Red New Deal, that have historically exploited Native American peoples. 

Indigenous knowledge is a vital aspect of indigenizing environmental justice. A Green New Deal that recognizes Indigenous worldviews and practices will help create a paradigm shift based on the relationship to the natural world, not its reckless exploitation. Native American leaders advocate that the Green New Deal must also hold the U.S. accountable for historic and systemic injustice toward Indigenous communities. It should also recognize colonization as responsible for trauma and other health impacts associated with climate change. They believe that adding accountability to the Green New Deal acknowledges U.S. colonial history, decolonizing the present and opening the door to greater justice and self-determination.