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Tribal law conference explores impact of climate change on indigenous peoples

Monday, March 4, 2013

LAWRENCE — On March 1, 2013, KU Law hosted the 17th Annual Tribal Law & Government Conference. The conference focused on the impacts of climate change on indigenous people. About  100 people attended.

During the first panel, Professor Robin Craig, S.J. Quinney College of Law, provided a survey of climate change law and science. Climate change law includes both mitigation and adaptation. Adaptation efforts acclimate to the effects of climate change. Mitigation attempts to reduce total greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Human rights issues are pervasive, especially in island nations that are running out of freshwater and losing land to increased sea level rise. International treaties, domestic litigation under the Clean Water, Clean Air, and Endangered Species Acts, plus U.S. administrative agencies' policies are a variety of legal tools being utilized to combat climate change.

The second panel discussed the domestic impacts of climate change on American Indians, Alaskan Natives, and tribal colleges. Speakers included Heather Kendall Miller, Native American Rights Fund; Professor Judith Royster, University of Tulsa College of Law; and Dr. Daniel Wildcat, Haskell Indian Nations University. Barriers currently exist that prevent tribes from deciding whether they should utilize mitigation or adaptation strategies to resolve climate change issues. In Alaska, state regulation, melting permafrost, coastal erosion sea level rise, decrease in animal species, large sinkholes, warmer temperatures offsetting any increase in precipitation, and deteriorating sea ice conditions are becoming increasingly detrimental to the viability of subsistence lifestyles and many Native Alaskan communities. Large numbers of villages face flooding and lack the funding to relocate.

During the third panel, the presenters discussed the international impacts of climate change on indigenous peoples. Speakers included Professor Randall S. Abate, Florida A&M University College of Law; Leonard Crippa, Indian Law Resource Center; and Isabel Segarra, a third-year KU Law student. Panelists discussed several international developments affecting indigenous peoples outside of the United States. Through the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) project, developed nations pay developing countries for carbon credits secured when the developing country eliminates deforestation and other impacts to forests. REDD triggers concerns regarding the rights of indigenous people who often rely on the forests targeted by REDD. Indigenous advocates are asking that REDD projects give the proper recognition of land tenure rights and financial benefits to indigenous peoples.

KU Law Professor Elizabeth Kronk Warner closed the conference with a discussion of the ethical quandaries arising from the practice of climate change law and Indian Law. Federal Indian law is about the relationship between the federal government and Indian nations. Professor Kronk Warner discussed the ethical duties of competence and management of confidential information in the context of representing tribes engaged in climate change activities.

The conference also marked the domestic book launch of "Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples: The Search for Legal Remedies" (Randall S. Abate & Elizabeth Ann Kronk eds., Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013). Contributors signed copies at the conference.