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True Climate Solutions Don’t Exploit Indigenous and Marginalized Communities

To effectively address the climate crisis, it will take a system that champions both people and the planet.

The president of the Sámi Parliament of Norway, Silje Karine Muotka (L), dressed in a traditional outfit is welcomed by activists from Nature and Youth and Norwegian Samirs Riksforbund Nuorat as they block the Ministry of Finances to protest against wind turbines built on land traditionally used to herd reindeer, in Oslo, Norway, on March 2, 2023.

The Sámi people, a nomadic Indigenous community in Scandinavia, are protesting wind turbines built on their traditional lands this month in Norway. They recently led a protest in front of the Norwegian parliament in an ongoing effort to protect Sámi land traditionally used for reindeer herding.

In October 2021, the Norwegian Supreme Court sided with the Sámi, ruling that the turbines violated Sámi people’s rights. Despite this ruling, the government has not shown any signs of ceasing operations. Earlier this year, climate activist Greta Thunberg joined the Sámi, stressing the importance of human rights as a part of climate action.

The Sámi people’s issue isn’t with green energy itself; Sámi communities have championed the need for climate action. For example, Sámi activists forced a Norwegian bank to divest from the Dakota Access Pipeline. Their concern lies with a trend in which governments around the world target Indigenous lands and marginalized communities as “sacrifice zones” for green energy production or manufacturing, disregarding the cost to people’s health and cultural activities.

In the past, sacrifice zones were usually sites of fossil fuel production and extractivism. The Sámi people for example, have spent centuries protecting their traditional lands against corporate and government encroachment. Long before wind turbines were constructed, Sámi people protested mining, logging and nuclear energy plants on their traditional lands. There are many other well-known sacrifice zones, like Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” where major chemical plants cause residents high rates of cancer. Fukushima, Japan, is coping with radioactivity because of a nuclear power plant. The Love Canal community near Niagara Falls in New York state continues to struggle with carcinogenic pollution because of landfills.

As we move toward a green energy transition, there is renewed hope that we can create energy and manufacturing systems that don’t destroy human health and well-being. As fossil fuel plants start to phase out, and as unsustainable and harmful manufacturing practices are rendered obsolete, ideally, we wouldn’t have sacrifice zones. Unfortunately, green technology can still perpetuate inequities. The same communities already suffering from being sacrifice zones in our current, fossil-fueled economy are seen as the normative choice for sacrifice zones in a green economy. Green sacrifice zones are already happening across the world and not too far from many of our own homes.

Beyond Sámiland, many communities are taking a stand against green sacrifice zones. Indigenous communities in Canada, the Philippines and the Amazon rainforest are being dispossessed of carbon-sinking land and forests that have been purchased as “carbon offsets” in the carbon trading market. This strategy is not a climate “solution” that centers justice. Not only can fossil fuel-intensive industries continue to contribute to high emissions, they can also buy their way out of accountability and displace Indigenous communities in the process. Worst of all, the results of this so-called solution have proven lackluster, and most climate offsets projects are inefficient.

Indigenous communities have defended the world’s forests for centuries and should be empowered as allies in climate solutions — not as enemies. Instead of privatizing Indigenous lands for corporations to buy carbon credits, Indigenous rights and lands need to be protected and expanded. When Indigenous communities and lands are respected, local ecology thrives.

Other marginalized communities — namely poor, Black and Brown communities — are also at the forefront of opposing unjust climate solutions. I currently live in New York City, which has set the necessary goal of having a net-zero economy by 2050. Many of the city’s climate solutions are exciting and promise a bright future. Still, some programs need to be critically challenged for their impact on marginalized communities, including emerging biofuel plants; diverted traffic due to congestion pricing, which increases air pollution in poor air quality communities like Harlem and the Bronx; and certain climate-adaptation initiatives.

As the city’s composting program begins, many marginalized communities have important questions about new “green” infrastructure. To learn more about these challenges, I recently joined WE ACT, a local climate justice organization in Harlem working to mobilize communities of color for environmental change.

Historically, communities like Harlem, the Bronx and central Brooklyn have been sacrificed for fossil fuel-intensive and unsustainable manufacturing. Will this be the same story as we roll out green solutions? For example, the city’s new composting program is actually 75 percent biofuel production and 25 percent composting. The city is preparing to build new biofuel plants throughout NYC, but I’m nervous to learn where they will be constructed. I fear the city will establish biofuel plants exclusively in Black and Brown communities. The Ironbound community of Newark, New Jersey, is a cautionary tale of the dangers of unchecked biofuel plants that ignore marginalized communities.

Many local climate advocates are demanding the city focus on regenerative processes and truly clean energy. Even though biofuel is much better than coal, it’s still less favorable because it produces harsh air pollutants. Biofuel is useful for now, but I hope the city uses it as an intermediate fuel as we transition to less-harmful energy sources and use more of the city’s food waste for compost. Renewable resources must also be paired with serious efforts to reduce energy consumption throughout the city. Cities don’t have to be perfect to meet their climate goals, but they do need to be conscious so that these goals don’t undermine the health of the local communities and ecology.

A system that disregards people and the planet has led us to the climate crisis, and it will take a system that champions both to effectively address it. As we move toward a more sustainable economy, it should not be at the cost of the health and well-being of Indigenous and marginalized communities. These communities have been at the forefront of the climate movement, and are key allies in this work. Even though climate solutions don’t need to be perfect, they need to be aware of their impact and dedicated to honoring the Earth and its people.

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