Indigenous Leadership for Transformative Climate Action

Native Hawaiian organizer Kaniela Ing on the moral path forward.

The COP26 climate talks in Glasgow ended with watered-down agreements on fossil fuels, despite urgent calls for action from Indigenous people who were underrepresented in the negotiations. Required Reading: Climate Justice Adaptation and Investing in Indigenous Power, an anthology on Indigenous resistance, was distributed by the NDN Collective Climate Justice Team at COP26. In this excerpt from the book, Hawaiian organizer Kaniela Ing addresses government negotiators directly about the perils of their colonialist business-as-usual agenda.

Over half a decade has passed since you ratified the Paris Climate Accord. Do you remember that momentous day? You spoke with soaring platitudes about new beginnings and unprecedented global cooperation. You positioned yourselves as the bona fide saviors of all living things. But even though you knew then that your paltry commitments of decarbonization fell far short of what nature and humanity requires of you, you still lacked the political courage to see them through.

Since then, the climate crisis has dealt a spate of deadly heat waves to cities across Turtle Island (colonially known as North America). Million-acre wildfires have reduced thriving Siberian villages to ashes. What were once “500-year floods” in China have become a macabre series of monthly events. Over a million people in Madagascar will soon suffer the first climate-induced famine. Even if we immediately got back on track to meet the goals of the Paris Accords, the planet could warm 3 or more degrees, leaving over half the earth uninhabitable, displacing or killing hundreds of millions of people, and causing feedback loops that could rapidly worsen conditions and make climate adaptation impossible—all within the lifetimes of my two toddlers. You have squandered years of meaningful progress when we could not, and cannot, afford to lose a single day.

Adequate action today thus requires transformative vision and a relentless will to survive. From the Standing Rock occupation in 2016 to the Youth Climate Strikes in 2019, the climate justice movement has mobilized more people since 2015 than any of us would have thought realistic. But as long as you continue to fight against us rather than with us—invested in piecemeal incrementalism that evades society’s most pressing problems—we will never be able to mobilize the public participation needed to secure climate survival, let alone justice.

The question of our time looms before you today: Will you build upon the energy of our movements to restore the connection between the planet and its people and save society as we know it, or will you continue to subject millions of innocent people to climate doom at the behest of climate polluters? The only moral and practical path forward is not easy, but it is abundantly clear. We implore you to heed the demands of our collective movements immediately:

  • Nations must cut carbon pollution in half in the next 10 years and eliminate it altogether by 2050 to keep the average rise in global temperature close to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Efforts must be primarily resourced by rich nations—like the United States—that have historically contributed the most to the climate crisis.
  • Nations must end and divest from all fossil fuel developments, and instead invest in renewable energy infrastructure, buildings, and transportation at a massive scale. This could be accomplished by guaranteeing good-paying, needs-based, union jobs to anyone who wants one.
  • Nations must prioritize racial and gender justice in all investments, ensure a just transition for fossil fuel workers, and return the control of land and resources to Indigenous communities and citizen-led local governments.
  • Nations must restore the natural balance of our world by transforming the extractive, colonial structures that brought us to the brink of mass extinction, runaway inequality, and ecological collapse in the first place.

Indigenous Climate Justice

Climate justice requires us to radically restore our relationship with the natural world around us and transform our political and economic systems to support this deep cultural change. No one is better equipped to lead this vision than the Indigenous people who have maintained reciprocal relationships with their homelands for millennia. Please note that when I say “lead,” I mean at a level unseen in modern politics thus far.

For too long, politicians and White-led climate organizations have tokenized Indigenous people and commodified our stories for political coin. We often comply because we have little choice: Over 90% of funding to climate organizations goes to White-led groups. Funding disparities among climate organizations mirror the power disparities between the rich and the recovering—and the colonial and the occupied—members of the United Nations.

Indigenous communities are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis because we maintain the closest ties to our natural environment. For the same reason, we are the closest to the solutions. It is foolish to relegate us to consultatory roles. We should sit at the head of the table, driving the work and leading the way—not just as a matter of justice, but of utmost practicality. Indigenous leaders hold the highest potential to save us all.

Ending Extraction

The Paris Climate Accord references the rights and traditional knowledge of Indigenous people six times throughout its 25 pages, seemingly suggesting that you understood that Indigenous systems are the key to our collective survival. But since its signing, your blatant disregard for the first peoples and guardians of our land has only intensified.

Police arrested more than 800 water protectors during the 2015 standoff between the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the greedy desecrators behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, making it more clear than ever that U.S. law enforcement stands strongly on the side of corporate power. Police savagely tased, pepper-sprayed, and sicced large dogs on crowds that included Native elders.

In 2019, a group of Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) protectors tied themselves to a cattle guard in order to prevent further desecration of Mauna Kea, our most sacred Mountain. The State responded by tearing chainsaws through our ‘ahu (prayer altars) and Hae Hawai‘i (Hawai‘i national flag) and excessively employing the National Guard and militarized police equipped with LRAD sound cannons, riot gear, and assault weapons.

As I write this chapter, Ojibwe water protectors are standing soul-to-soul with their allies from the environmental and climate justice movements to stop the Enbridge corporation’s Line 3 pipeline. The pipeline supplies tar sands oil: one of the most destructive, carbon-intensive and toxic fuels on the planet. It spans across Alberta, Canada, and the midwest United States and plunders through four U.S.-Tribal “Treaty Areas.” Its construction and operation will infringe upon the centuries-old hunting, fishing, and gathering rights of the Ojibwe people.

Although Indigenous people could better utilize our ancestral knowledge to develop a thriving future, these battles illuminate how often we are forced to sacrifice our time, energy, and livelihoods to defend all we hold dear from desecration by our own governments. We are tired of playing whack-a-mole, defeating extractive project after project as greedy colonizers devise even more. So we ask you to work with us to end fossil fuels once and for all and restore the natural balance of our world. Because as long as executives can acquire massive sums of money by destroying our planet, they will. Policymakers like you need to reverse the incentives: No one should be able to turn a nickel in profit from fossil fuels.

Restoring Regeneration

Climate justice will require a significant structural shift from a profit-based global extractive economy to needs-based, localized, regenerative economies. Anthropologists believe that, for centuries, people in many Indigenous societies worked roughly 15 hours a week to provide for their personal and communal needs. Our ancestors mastered advanced ecological management practices—like regenerative agriculture, aquaculture, controlled burning, and coral reef replenishment—that Western empiricism is finally catching up to after decades of colonial governments banning such practices. These highly efficient Indigenous systems afforded our ancestors ample time to engage in fellowship with friends, practice arts and crafts, learn new skills, or just relax and enjoy their lives.

Today, we produce enough goods and services to exceed the needs of all among us, but poverty and income equality remain stark. Extractive systems endlessly require another valley, another river, another island, another continent—until there is nowhere left to occupy, conquer, pollute, and destroy. No clearer purveyor of this colonial mindset exists than the man who milked the most out of the extractive economy. Jeff Bezos, currently the richest man in the world, recently spent $5.5 billion dollars on a joyride to space using the money he’s hoarded by exploiting and abusing hundreds of thousands of workers selling mostly useless goods—made cheap by the monopoly power of Amazon and Amazon-affiliated companies—to the masses. Like a movie villain, his first comment upon witnessing the majesty of our cosmos was that we should immediately begin polluting it by exporting our trash beyond Earth’s orbit.

We should take heart in the fact that people built our oppressive institutions, because it means that people can dismantle them and build something new. People hold the knowledge and technologies to transform society. All we need is moral fortitude and revolutionary courage. Today’s extractive systems were created and are upheld by the colonial myths of scarcity, individualism, and the sanctity of free markets. Tomorrow’s regenerative systems must be rooted in the Indigenous realities of abundance, community codependency, and deep reciprocal relationships between the planet and its people.

Movement Governance

I work as the national climate justice campaign director for People’s Action, where it is my duty to hold leaders like you accountable to your promises and compel you to create the conditions for our planet and its people to thrive. But before I was an organizer, I served on your side of the table—as an elected official in Hawaiʻi. I constantly struggled to balance my dual identities as a Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) and an “American” politician. The direct view from my office window revealed the quarters of ‘Iolani Palace, where the last sovereign monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Queen Liliʻuokalani, was imprisoned and illegally overthrown by a right-wing, racist coup of armed American corporatists.

In early 2015, near the end of my second term in office, the U.S. Army proposed a significant demilitarization of our islands. Thousands of troops were slated to leave, availing thousands of homes to Kānaka Maoli suffering from homelessness and land dispossession. This presented a real opportunity to transform the extractive systems that had dominated over Hawaiʻi since the overthrow. It was a rare chance to build livelihoods for Kānaka Maoli and other local residents that did not rely on the death and destruction of others.

During my time in office, I voiced my support for demilitarization. Every single other elected official—at all levels across Hawaiʻi—opposed my position.

The Speaker of the House immediately called me into the office to plead for my vote. He saw me as his mentee and a rising star, and warned that I would become a “pariah” if I stood as the lone dissent. He leaned over his desk and bellowed, “You need to understand that Native Hawaiians rely on the military to survive!” I responded solemnly, “Respectfully, you need to understand that is the problem.” I proceeded to cast my vote that evening, citing the long oppressive history of militarism against Kānaka Maoli and its role as the world’s biggest climate polluter in an emotional speech. Shortly after, a Primary Election challenger pulled papers for my seat, and was immediately backed by record-breaking funding from military-adjacent contractors and special interests. I won that race because Kānaka Maoli and organizers turned out, but I earned political enemies for life. My hopes for higher office were dashed, and I paid for this vote (among others) in a brutal, failed bid for Congress.

But I have never regretted my stance. Today, I have a much greater impact as a national climate justice director: building large-scale campaigns, rooted in the needs of local communities, to tackle the greatest problems of our generation. As a part of a larger movement ecosystem, I have helped organizations build unbreakable bases of directly impacted populations, surge into the political arena, and set the agenda for the world’s most powerful politicians and corporations. We have ousted long-term establishment politicians and sent shock waves to any leader who dares to align themselves with those climate polluters. I can sleep at night knowing that I stood with my people on the right side of history. When the going gets tough, I know that the movement has my back.

The Choice at Hand

As we deliberate the future of our planet and its people, remember that there are only two paths: the status quo that leads to climate calamity and a transformative path that leads to human flourishing. Although ever-expansive colonialism and extraction may score you some lavish dinners with a corporate executive or two, it will inevitably kill and displace hundreds of millions of innocent people and condemn you to a relentless legacy of disgrace. A holistic transformation to Indigenous systems and regeneration, however, assumes short-term disdain from corporate polluters in exchange for a thriving future for all living things. Which path will you take?

This moment beckons revolutionary movement governance that is swift yet collaborative, deliberate yet boldly creative, and undaunted by the specter of failure. We all need to see ourselves as part of the global movement ecosystem in the same way that Indigenous people see themselves as part of our natural ecosystems. No one should hold dominion over people or our planet, but instead maintain a reciprocal relationship with everything and everyone entrusted under our care. It is in this unbreakable spirit that we will win the fight to reconstruct an open, just, and habitable world.

This excerpt from Required Reading: Climate Justice Adaptation and Investing in Indigenous Power, edited by NDN Collective Climate Justice Team (2021) and published by Loam, appears with permission.


NDN Collective is an Indigenous-led organization dedicated to building Indigenous power. Through organizing, activism, philanthropy, grantmaking, capacity-building, and narrative change, they are creating sustainable solutions on Indigenous terms.
Kaniela Ing is a Kānaka Maoli father, musician, and community organizer from Maui, Hawai'i. He works as the climate justice campaign director for People's Action, a network of 42 power-building organizations across 30 states. He also serves on the national boards of the Green New Deal Network, Climate Power, and the United Frontline Table. Previously, Kaniela was a Hawaii State Legislator where he co-led efforts to require Native Law training for state board members, enact community-based fishery management, and pass the nation's first 100% renewable energy goal. Locally, Ing is the co-founder and a board member of the Hawaii Community Bail Fund and organizes with the Kū Kia'i Mauna movement to protect Mauna Kea.
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