By Michael Shank and US Congressman Raul Grijalva
As climate talks wrapped up at the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) in Egypt this past month, the attending delegates agreed to make long-awaited history. For the first time, the United Nations adopted a pact to establish a “loss and damage” fund for developing nations that have borne the brunt of climate disasters over the years.
The loss and damage fund is, at last, a formal and financial acknowledgement that richer, higher carbon-emitting nations, like the United States, have an obligation to compensate for the climate crisis they’ve had such a heavy hand in creating. But accepting this responsibility didn’t come easily. Developing nations have been fighting for three decades just to get the loss and damage fund on the U.N. agenda. As of last year, Scotland was the only country that had committed any funding at all.
The agreement is unquestionably worthy of celebration, but is climate justice served?
Regrettably, no. While the funding will certainly help address injustices on the nation-to-nation scale, it ignores the unlevel playing field that remains for Indigenous communities, within both developing and industrialized countries alike.
Yessie Mosby, a Kulkalgal activist from the Torres Strait Islands off the coast of Australia, who said he was “fighting for our home” in attending COP27, knows the problem well. Mosby is one of several Islanders who filed a claim with the U.N. Human Rights Committee attesting that their rights had been violated due to the Australian government’s inaction on climate. In September, the U.N. committee ruled in the Islanders’ favor, saying the Australian government “violated their rights to enjoy their culture, free from ‘arbitrary interference’ with their private life, family, and home.” We’ve written on the importance of using this rights-based approach in the United States, too.
Many Indigenous communities face being displaced, losing access to their traditional foods or subsistence, or being otherwise hurt by climate change. Inflaming the injustice further, many Indigenous communities maintain cultural and agricultural practices that could inform climate resilience and adaptation strategies but have been ignored when it comes to national climate policy solutions. As Mosby affirmed, his community has “a lot of ancient knowledge, which is being neglected and pushed aside” and “the world definitely has a lot to learn from us.”
Fortunately, this year’s COP27 offered some hope that the world’s leaders are finally willing to listen. During the first week of the conference, Egypt’s Foreign Minister and COP27 President Sameh Shoukry attended a roundtable with the Indigenous People’s delegation where he lauded the value and experiences of Indigenous representatives.
Inclusion is obviously important, but the funding must follow. The Rockefeller Foundation’s announcement last month of funding for Indigenous agricultural practices is a welcome start. As is the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance’s support for the Aboriginal Carbon Foundation (ACF), which is creating a carbon farming market in Australia based around “Traditional Owner” knowledge and environmental services. “We’re here to create jobs on Country, address the bushfires through cultural burning, and tackle climate change,” notes Rowan Foley of the Wondunna clan of the Badtjala people, Traditional Owners of Fraser Island (K’gari), and CEO of ACF.
But support from foundations and nonprofit organizations alone is not enough. We need to seize the momentum from the loss and damage fund victory and aggressively pursue Indigenous direct access to climate finance, funding for Indigenous-led solutions and knowledge systems, Land Back, Indigenous-led conservation, and more, as the Indigenous Peoples Pavilion highlighted at COP27.
Here in the United States, the Biden administration holds the potential to be a leader in Indigenous inclusion, having already taken some important steps. The administration recently launched the Indigenous Peoples Finance Access Facility, which will fund and “provide trainings, tools, and workshops to build long-term capacity and enhance access to climate finance.”
The U.S. Department of the Interior, which manages our public lands—a major component of U.S. climate solutions—has made headway in giving Indigenous leaders a seat at the decision making table and advancing tribal co-management of public lands. As Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said recently, “We will continue to use the best-available science and Indigenous knowledge to better prepare for and respond to the impacts of climate change.” Of course, Congress must now step up to the plate to ensure U.S. funding for these initiatives—and the U.N. loss and damage fund.
Decades of determination led to the U.N. adopting a loss and damage fund. But we also can’t let an incomplete solution be the end goal. If we want to build a global community that is serious about addressing the climate crisis and advancing climate justice, Indigenous Peoples must have a leading role and the financial compensation to match.
Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) is chair of the House Natural Resources Committee. Michael Shank is communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and adjunct faculty at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.