Absolute Carbon Reduction Is an “Issue of Life and Death” for Indigenous Peoples

Countries attending the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow have made new pledges to cut their emissions, but activists say it’s not enough to avert the worst of the climate crisis. India has pledged to reduce its carbon emissions to net zero in 2070. Over 100 leaders have pledged to end deforestation in 2030. The United States announced a new plan, among other things, to reduce methane emissions. Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, is in Glasgow for the talks and warns the heavy focus on “net zero” rather than absolute carbon reductions suggests leaders are not planning to make serious changes. “It’s a continuing war against Mother Earth, against Father Sky,” says Goldtooth. “It is an issue of life and death to many of our Indigenous peoples, from the north to the south.” Climate campaigner Bill McKibben says the movement to divest from fossil fuels has had a major impact but that business interests are still holding back a transition to renewable energy. “Money is the oxygen on which the fires of global warming keep burning,” says McKibben.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like to bring in Tom Goldtooth, the executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. Welcoming to Democracy Now!Tom, what was you reaction to COP26 opening? What do you see? Is it a failure at the outset? What do Indigenous people want from this summit?

TOM GOLDTOOTH:Bill mentioned that a lot of team players at the corporate level and at the country level had their war game plans. And this is what we’ve seen as Indigenous peoples for these 26 years. I’ve been coming to these COPs since the fourth, COP number four. And, you know, it’s a continuing war against Mother Earth, against Father Sky. The violence that’s perpetuated with the continuation of the dumping of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, greenhouse gases, carbon, it’s insane. The bathtub’s overflowing. It must stop. Our Indigenous delegation that’s here and the ones that are still coming here, we’re saying, “Hey, you know, this has got to stop,” for our communities, our Indigenous nations and communities from the United States.

You know that President Biden has arrived. Some saw his presentation on the screen. He’s continuing a U.S. legacy, a U.S. legacy of broken treaties. In his run for presidency, he said he’s going to uphold the treaties of our Indigenous nations and stop leasing public lands to the fossil fuel polluters. Instead, he has failed to stop the Dakota Access pipeline, he’s failed to stop the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline, and with an agenda of supercharging oil and gas, leasing on pipelines and waters. This must stop. The frontlines to Washington, to Glasgow, we’re telling Biden to reject Big Oil lies, ban federal oil and gas leasing, and stop the federal climate catastrophe. This must stop.

You know, one of the issues that we’re bringing to here as part of a national Build Back Fossil Free campaign, a movement in the United States between our Indigenous nations, our Black and people of color communities and green groups, is to push Biden, but not only Biden, but also the Northern industrialized countries, to declare a climate emergency and keep fossil fuels in the ground and end subsidies of fossil fuels globally, but back home domestically. We’ve got to do that and end the federal fossil fuel leasing program.

But one of the things that we’re here to really lift up is this false solutions around net zero agenda. There’s no problem about us pushing for a zero agenda in emissions, but when they slide in the word “net,” that’s when it really is problematic. And it’s a process in what we see of not really cutting emissions at source. And it’s the main buzzword here, “net zero emissions,” “nature-based solutions.” And net zero has nothing to do with reducing zero — reducing emissions to zero. It doesn’t refer to cutting emissions at source at the rate that we need to limit the warming to 1.5 Celsius. It’s very critical. It is a matter that affects many of our Indigenous peoples. So that’s why we’re here to amplify that voice.

Again, you know, we’re asking that there be attention to this from the world leaders. But we’re here not just alone. We’re here with allies saying that this concept of net zero emissions does not reduce pollution. And there’s oil giants, like Shell, like BP, like ExxonMobil, all claiming to move towards net zero, so that, really, it’s a mechanism of greenwash. It allows them to increase drilling, burn fossil fuels, while avoiding any responsibility for the current climate crisis. They are climate criminals, and we’re concerned that this Conference of the Parties is continuing to be a conference of the polluters.

AMY GOODMAN:Conference of Parties, also known as polluters, is represented naturally by COP, C-O-P. Let’s turn to Bolivian President Luis Arce, who addressed the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow Monday.

PRESIDENT LUIS ARCE: [translated]We must be aware that developed nations are pushing a new global process of recolonization, which could be called the new carbon colonialism. I say this because they’re attempting to impose the rules of the game, their own rules of the game, to continue to fuel the new green capitalistic system and to force these rules of the game upon us, with us having no option. We can’t solve the climate crisis through more green capitalism and more global carbon market. We must change the civilization model and move towards an alternative model. This alternative model is the idea of living in harmony with Mother Earth.

AMY GOODMAN:So, this is the Bolivian President Luis Arce. Bill McKibben: Could you address the issue of climate capital and what it really means to set the framework for a sustainable world?

BILLMcKIBBEN Well, let me say first, you know, one of the things I’m doing today is addressing a memorial service for the 247 environment activists that were killed around the world last year, many of them in Latin America, and, in almost every case, standing up to defend something — a forest, a place that’s about to be mined — from some large corporation or another. Now, the corporation didn’t come out and kill them, but their orders trickle down to whoever was there on the ground and whoever pulled the trigger. All of that is still ongoing. There’s a kind of ongoing colonialism. It is most severe for Indigenous peoples, who are more likely to suffer than anyone else. A large percentage of those 247 bodies comes from Indigenous communities. So let’s always remember that those lives are on the line.

And so are the lives of — well, we know that breathing the combustion products of fossil fuels, from a big study released a few weeks ago, kills 8.7 million people a year on this planet. That’s one death in five. It’s bigger than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis combined, malaria combined. And it’s all unnecessary, because we now are able to produce power by pointing a sheet of glass at the sun. Renewable energy is the most affordable power source on the planet. But the reason that it’s not rolling out fast enough is precisely because there is still this huge industry that’s trying to make money off the end of the world.

Not all news is bad. We are making some progress. We announced last week that the global campaign for divestment has reached $40 trillion in endowments, portfolios and shares. It’s become the largest anti-corporate campaign in history. It continues. Yesterday, more universities divested. The Dutch pension fund was the fifth largest in the world. We’re going to keep that pressure on, because — well, because money is the oxygen on which the fires of global warming keep burning. If we can stop the flow of capital, or finance, we can at most slow down this process, which is what we desperately need.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And speaking of the fires of global warming, I wanted to ask Tom Goldtooth — there’s a recent United Nations report that warns that at least 10 forests designated as World Heritage sites have become net emitters of greenhouse gases, no longer absorbing more carbon than they emit. Could you talk about that and your reaction, and what must be done, and why governments need to react much more quickly to the crisis we’re facing?

TOM GOLDTOOTH: Well, here in the hallways of the Conference of the Parties here, our Indigenous caucus, from all over the world, we’ve been involved with a process of establishing protocols for sharing our traditional knowledge, our Indigenous traditional knowledge, with the nation-states. And that’s a very important and critical part of the history of this UNFCCC meeting, because it’s going to be the application of our Indigenous traditional knowledge that we feel is a solution, is a solution to this world crisis. And we’ve been saying that all along with our delegation for years, is that we have to look for solutions that are real solutions, real reductions that cut emissions at source.

And that’s one reason that we’ve been looking at ways to build mechanisms in different countries, especially those countries that are rich in trees, forested areas, especially the Amazon and the tropical regions. This also applies to the North’s forested areas. We must do this. We must restore. We need healthy nature.

But one thing that we have to also lift up, that’s part of our spiritual knowledge, our traditional knowledge, is that we cannot sell Father Sky, we cannot sell Mother Earth or the trees in the capitalistic project. And climate capitalism is something that’s going to affect our people. So we’re for these conservation projects, biodiversity protection projects, but outside of a carbon market system. Traditional knowledge says that the government will have to wake up to reduce emissions at source, keep fossil-fuels in the ground, as well as restore and sustain healthy biodiversity ecosystems.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us, and, of course, we’re going to continue this conversation, Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, member of the Diné and Dakota Nations, usually is in Minnesota, today in Glasgow, and Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.orgHis latest book, Falter: Has the Human Game Been Designed to Play Itself? And we’ll link to his piecesIn The New YorkerSubscribe to his weekly climate newsletter.

We speak with a Samoan climate activist aged 23. Yesterday, she spoke at the U.N. climate summit. Stay with us.