Book examines how climate change affects indigenous people

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

LAWRENCE — Climate change’s effects are starting to be felt around the world, and indigenous populations are in many cases among the first to have their ways of life disrupted. Yet these populations are often powerless, both politically and economically, to convince those with the ability to do something about it to do so. A University of Kansas law professor has co-edited a book examining how climate change has affected indigenous people worldwide and how they can legally address the issues in the future.

Elizabeth Kronk, associate professor of law and director of the Tribal Law & Government Center at KU, has co-edited “Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples: The Search for Legal Remedies” with Randall S. Abate, associate professor of law at Florida A&M University. The editors gathered work from a collection of legal and environmental experts from around the world, many of whom hail from indigenous populations. Their entries examine how climate change has affected indigenous peoples on numerous continents and how future legal action may help their cause.

“As far as I know it’s the only book of its kind,” Kronk said. “There are lots on climate change, but none that I know of that examine the effects of it on indigenous people. A lot of times when you hear about climate change people say ‘when or if this happens.’ Well, it’s already happening, and indigenous people especially are being forced to deal with it.”

The book examines climate change through an indigenous perspective in North and South America, the Pacific Islands, Australia and New Zealand, Asia and Africa. The contributors, all either practicing lawyers or law professors, both explain the problems faced by indigenous populations and break down attempts to devise legal, workable solutions.

For example, Inuit citizens living near the Arctic in the United States, Canada, Russia and Greenland are in a region of the world that is warming four times faster than other regions. Yet, litigation brought by residents of the Native Village of Kivalina against companies that contribute large amounts of greenhouse gasses to the environment has been unsuccessful.

As a problem of global scale, climate change is incredibly complex and difficult to deal with via law and policy. There are local, municipal, national and international laws that often conflict.

“The indigenous people of the Arctic are literally losing their homeland,” Kronk said. “But climate change law is complicated, when you add all those levels of law, it’s even more so.”

The book’s 20-plus contributors outline ways indigenous populations can navigate the complex web of climate change law, and review both national-level successes and international-level shortcomings. They examine both options of mitigation law — which intends to halt and reverse climate change affects — and adaptation law, which acknowledges climate change and ways to legally adapt to it.

“Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples” could prove beneficial to legal scholars, environmental lawyers and anyone with an interest in indigenous populations among others.

“Whether as a novice's starting point or expert's desktop reference, I cannot think of a more useful resource for anyone interested in climate policy for indigenous peoples,” said J.B. Ruhl of Vanderbilt University Law School.

Knowing that one legal strategy will not fit all, the books authors spend a good deal of time exploring how specific indigenous populations can deal with climate change realities unique to their part of the world, within the frame of the law. The text also examines how indigenous peoples, often on the front lines of the climate change battle, can inform the rest of the world in dealing with the many associated social and legal issues.

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