Indigenous People and Environmental Justice: The Impact of Climate Change

The international dialogue on climate change is currently focused on a strategy of adaptation that includes the projected removal of entire communities, if necessary. Not surprisingly, many of the geographical regions that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are also the traditional lands of indigenous communities. This article takes the position that the adaptation strategy will prove genocidal for many groups of indigenous people, and instead argues for recognition of an indigenous right to environmental self-determination, which would allow indigenous peoples to maintain their cultural and political status upon their traditional lands. In the context of climate change policy, such a right would impose affirmative requirements on nation-states to engage in a mitigation strategy in order to avoid catastrophic harm to indigenous peoples. This article argues for a new conception of rights to address the unique harms of climate change. An indigenous right to environmental self-determination would be based on human rights norms in recognition that "sovereignty claims" by indigenous groups are not a sufficient basis to protect traditional ways of life and the rich and unique cultural norms of such groups. Similarly, tort-based theories of compensation for the harms of climate change have only limited capacity to address the concerns of indigenous peoples.