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The Native American Protests in North Dakota Are About More Than an Oil Pipeline

Do the last few weeks mark a turning point for environmental activism?
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Native American protestors wave a flag over land designated for the Dakota Access Pipeline on September 3rd, 2016, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota.

Native American protestors wave a flag over land designated for the Dakota Access Pipeline on September 3rd, 2016, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota.

On Wednesday, some 31 nations officially joined the landmark Paris climate agreement at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The action, which marked a significant policy milestone in the slow international battle against climate change, came one day after some 375 leading scientists published an open letter to world leaders urging them to address the indisputable presence of climate change and its consequences worldwide.

“Our fingerprints on the climate system are visible everywhere,” they wrote. “Human-caused climate change is not something far removed from our day-to-day experience, affecting only the remote Arctic. It is present here and now, in our own country, in our own states, and in our own communities.”

But the real climate change action isn’t taking place in New York; it’s in North Dakota. Last week, a federal appeals court halted the construction of a crucial section of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, the Associated Press reports. The order came in response to an emergency injunction filed by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. The tribe claims the $3.8 billion pipeline, which would run 1,200 miles from the Dakotas to Illinois and carry 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day, could pollute community water supplies (a real concern since the United States’ crude oil pipelines spill far more than trains, per the International Energy Agency) and irrevocably damage sacred tribal lands and historical sites. The injunction is part of a larger lawsuit against pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners for “razing areas on private land that the tribe’s cultural expert recently discovered were significant,” as NPR put it.

From the tribe’s emergency motion filed earlier this month:

In the afternoon of Friday, September 2, 2016, the [Standing Rock Sioux Tribe] further submitted recently discovered evidence of an astonishing archaeological find. This find concerned historically, culturally, and religiously important stone features and grave markings to the successors of the Great Sioux Nation, including graves of chiefs, warriors and Bear Medicine healers. These formations and grave sites are adjacent to and in the pipeline’s proposed right-of-way approximately 1 to 2 miles away from the Lake Oahe crossing site. Less than 24 hours after SRST’s filing, Dakota Access desecrated and destroyed the sites described in SRST’s declaration.

The emergency injunction itself isn’t unusual. The Huffington Post points out that the government agencies have essentially been approving oil and gas pipelines without environmental impact analyses since the Keystone XL controversy; as a result, various tribal communities in Washington and Montana have taken legal action to protect their sacred lands. But more than the appeals court’s decision, the most significant aspect of the saga unfolding in North Dakota is the protests by Native Americans and environmentalist allies that precipitated the court’s ruling. Just last week, thousands of people flooded an encampment at the construction site outside of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in what the AP characterized as “the largest gathering of Native Americans in a century.” The pipeline protests include representatives from hundreds of Native American tribes, ardent environmental activists, and even a celebrity or two, according to Reuters.

These protests aren’t just about the displacement of yet another Native American tribe, but rather center on a larger jeremiad against the destruction of the planet. And more so than any Prius-driving hippie or grandstanding politician, the Standing Rock Sioux may signal the dawn of a new type of climate politics—based less on affirming the scientific reality of climate change and more on the immediate consequences of a warming planet.

For the average American, climate change is the realm of politicians and scientists, not an everyday experience.

“Our indigenous people have been warning for 500 years that the destruction of Mother Earth is going to come back and it’s going to harm us,” David Archambault, tribal chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, told Reuters. “Now our voices are getting louder.”

Central to the North Dakota protests is the idea of climate justice, the notion that climate change’s disproportionate impact on various communities makes it a ethico-political issue rather than simply an environmental one. Climate justice is a tricky doctrine to sell in a country where one-third of the members of Congress don’t believe climate change is even real (although 64 percent of U.S. adults say they’re actually concerned about it, according to Gallup). As such, changing the public’s perception of climate change as a humanitarian crisis rather than a scientific phenomenon is essential to sounding the alarm.

Sociological research backs up this problem. A 2015 paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science recommends lawmakers focus on framing climate change as “a present, local, and personal risk” rather than a “future, distant, global, nonpersonal, and analytical” one. Among the biggest barriers to changing the human response to an abstract phenomenon such as climate change, according to a comprehensive report by the American Psychological Association, is that people simply do not directly experience climate change:

They experience representations of climate change that are presented to them via various media and educational sources and personal interactions and, influenced by such presentations, they may interpret certain events they do experience, such as hurricanes or wildfires, as manifestations of climate change.

For the average American, climate change is the realm of politicians and scientists, not an everyday experience.

Highlighting the risks faced by Native American populations like the Standing Rock Sioux may reverse this trend. Various studies from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and National Climate Assessment have highlighted the particular vulnerabilities of indigenous populations to climate-related phenomena like extreme weather and coastal erosion, primarily due to tribes’ geographic dependency on the natural environment for both resources and cultural stability, per PBS NewsHour. Native American communities in Louisiana and coastal Alaska have already endured forced relocation, according to a 2013 analysis in Climatic Change. In Louisiana in particular, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribes announced in February plans to flee their native home of Isle de Jean Charles after losing 98 percent of their land to rising oceans and irresponsible gas and oil extraction dating back to the 1950s, making them the first official climate refugees in the U.S.

Louisiana’s Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribes may be the first climate refugees, but they certainly won’t be the last indigenous community to suffer the global consequences of climate change. The question is: Will their plight help re-frame climate change from an abstract existential concern to an immediate threat?

Vivid stories help. In 2013, Bloomberg Businessweek visited Kiribati, the tiny archipelago nation in the Central Pacific whose 103,000 citizens face must deal with rising oceans claiming their land and poisoning their fresh water supplies. Even better, consider Bloomberg’s arresting cover in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy—a gloomy look at flooded, blackened streets beneath a simple assertion: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.” It’s these visceral tales of destruction and suffering—and the protests that ensue—that morph climate change from the realm of lab coats and policy sessions into a matter of public concern.

This isn’t to say the Paris climate treaty is not consequential (it absolutely is). But political filibusters on the dangers of climate change aren’t enough to encourage Americans to take global warming seriously as an imminent threat. The Paris Agreement may be far more effective than a relatively local injunction in the grand scheme of the battle against anthropogenic climate change, but it’s the highly visible (sometimes violent) protests by those climate refugees that may actually galvanize the American public to change the way lawmakers in Washington think about the coming environmental apocalypse. The number of Americans who take climate change seriously is at an eight-year high, according to Gallup: Now, it’s up to a cadre of devoted protesters to ensure American heads don’t return to political obliviousness.