Colonialism caused climate change, Indigenous rights are the solution

A banner with the title "Colonialism caused climate change, Indigenous rights are the solution" alongside a headshot of a white woman with glasses


Eriel Deranger

Indigenous Climate Action (CIA)

Executive Director and Cofounder

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation


As governments and organizations rush to find effective solutions to the climate crisis, I am struck by how quickly settlers in climate spaces dismiss Indigenous rights and Indigenous-led climate strategies as critical and necessary. Yet, at the same time there is a desire by these same groups to understand how they can “learn” how to work with and advocate for these same communities, but seemingly only when it benefits them. If we are going to learn to work together, then we need a starting point: stop perpetuating the relations, systems and ways of knowing that have caused both climate change and inequality in this country. Afterall, are we not supposed to be advancing truth and reconciliation in this country?

Time and time again, I have witnessed how settler environmental organizations have appropriated and/or tokenized Indigenous communities to advance support for their respective campaigns (whether electoral or social justice), that had no real lasting positive impact on the Indigneous community. It’s clear that if we are to get reconciliation and climate action right, it will require climate organizers, scientists and policy-makers to reflect on the ways their current processes, worldviews and campaigns may be replicating the very colonial relations and practices that are causing climate change. 

During UNFCCC COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland in 2021 the Indigneous Peoples Caucus began their opening statement reiterating the tagline “Colonialism caused climate change, Indigenous rights are the solution”, a statement made by an Indigenous Climate Action representative during COP25. The reason for this articulation is that current proposed solutions and policies to the climate crisis are still being built within colonial constructs that continue to cause harm to our communities, our rights and ways of being. 

For those readers who are not familiar with the relationships between colonialism and climate change, allow me to offer this quick recap:

The climate crisis is a manifestation of the extractive and exploitative relations, systems and worldviews that have been brought by force, through settler colonialism, to what is now called Canada. Canada has become a high GHG emitting country precisely through the process of land theft and policies of erasure and assimilation that have sought to remove Indigenous Peoples from their territories in order to access land for unsustainable natural resource extraction and for settlement. 

The global climate justice movement regularly points out that the people most impacted by oppressive systems are best positioned to demand, envision and lead the transformation of that system. Indeed, Indigenous folks and others have long been calling for clear and tangible solutions that keep fossil fuels in the ground, that build economies based on reciprocal and regenerative relations with each other and the Earth, and ultimately address root causes and transform systems. 

However, despite the pressure, urgency and countless proposed pathways for solutions from Indigenous peoples, we continue to be systematically excluded from high level climate action planning and policy-making. In many cases because our rights and visions pose a threat to the extractive, capitalist status quo. It’s become clear that in a time of truth and reconciliation there continues to be a desire to avoid upholding the bare minimum standards laid out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples which requires States to consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them” (article 19). It has been argued that States must have consent as the objective of consultation before the adoption of legislation or administrative policies that affect indigenous peoples (article 19) and in “undertaking of projects that affect indigenous peoples’ rights to land, territory and resources, including mining and other utilization or exploitation of resources (article 32).”

Yet, the climate crisis has been intensifying at an alarming rate and our communities continue to bear the brunt of the impacts. We hear on the news every day now about horrific storm events, massive floods, droughts and forest fires. Almost 30 years of climate negotiations have passed, and climate science has been going on for longer. But to what effect? GHG emissions continue to rise, mainstream efforts are failing. As an Indigenous person who has participated in these spaces for two decades I can’t help but notice how scientific and policy efforts to address the crisis are devoid of Indigenous science, values and knowledge systems rendering them largely ineffective in addressing the overarching structural challenges that allow climate change to continue unabated. Mainstream approaches focus on reducing GHG as if this all comes down to a mathematical equation. We’re seeing a carbon essentialism framework that looks to commodify the natural world and the atmosphere through the development of carbon markets that allows colonialism, capitalism and extractivism to continue unabated. These false solutions ignore and minimize Indigenous solutions that exist outside of these structures. The climate crisis demands that we develop transformative visions for the future that encompass something different, something more, and Indigenous solutions provide alternative pathways that we desperately need.

There is overwhelming evidence that the territories stewarded by Indigenous communities hold much more biodiversity than the regions of the earth that are under non-Indigenous management. Indigenous land defenders and water protectors opposing extractive development on their lands are keeping carbon in the ground in a way that mainstream climate policy has failed to do. Where the western scientific worldview is reductionist, dividing the living world up into parts, Indigenous worldviews are holistic, expansive and relational. Climate scientists have been observing changing climate conditions for decades; Indigenous communities since time immemorial. Indigenous folks have known for far longer than science about the harms caused by extractivism and capital accumulation. Science has only now been catching up.  

Even with all that being so, our people, our knowledges, and our rights are still being left out of policy making, or brought in anecdotally, or as mechanism to back up western colonial science. But our knowledge is science, a science based on deeper, much longer observations that spans millennia. Our knowledge is not anecdotal. It has succeeded in guiding us through and helping us survive all kinds of climatic and other changes and upheavals including the European colonization of our lands and lives. Through changes after changes we have managed to maintain our deep relations with the living world and our sense of responsibility to all the land and our relations. Your western reductionist science can not say the same. 

For all these reasons and more, the climate science and policy world needs to take a hard look at how the work you do may not be adequate to the task at hand. And then develop the humbleness required to make space for other ways of knowing (and researching and making policy) that may be better equipped. From there you need to find ways to redirect – to Indigenous climate leaders and generational Knowledge Holders –  some of the immense amount of funding, political influence and media coverage that climate science and climate policy makers are afforded. 

It’s not about making space at the table. It’s about recognizing that these spaces are broken, they are not safe for our communities. We need to  find new places built together to meet our collective needs. I urge you to rethink your ways of knowing, like your lives depend on it.