A Test of U.S. Climate Leadership Will Be How We Treat the Standing Rock Sioux

My ears perked up when I heard that Hillary Clinton was giving a speech on American Exceptionalism. I cringe every time this is a topic; the idea is far too close to Manifest Destiny. “The United States is an exceptional nation. I believe we are still Lincoln’s last, best hope of Earth. We’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill. We’re still Robert Kennedy’s great, unselfish, compassionate country,” Secretary Clinton said Wednesday. She went on to say that “we are the indispensable nation. People all over the world look to us and follow our lead.” If that’s true, that’s not a bad thing. But it all depends what happens over the next few weeks and months near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. If the United States is to be that “indispensable nation,” it has to lead on the most important crisis Mother Earth faces, climate change. This is not what Clinton was talking about. Her speech was all about global security, the military, and global alliances. But her words were exactly on point on the issue of climate change.

As she put it: “Because, when America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum that either causes chaos or other countries or networks rush in to fill the void. So no matter how hard it gets, no matter how great the challenge, America must lead. The question is how we lead. What kind of ideas, strategies, and tactics we bring to our leadership. American leadership means standing with our allies because our network of allies is part of what makes us exceptional.” And those are applicable themes when it comes to the global reaction to climate change. Last year, Clinton praised the Paris Climate Change Agreement. “The Paris agreement is testament to America’s ability to lead the world in building a clean energy future where no one is left out or left behind,” she said … “we will only succeed if we redouble our efforts going forward to drive innovation, increase investment, and reap the benefits of the good-paying jobs that will come from transitioning to a clean energy economy.

The next decade of action is critical—because if we do not press forward with driving clean energy growth and cutting carbon pollution across the economy, we will not be able to avoid catastrophic consequences.” So let’s be absolutely clear here: The tribal community of Standing Rock and the people downstream on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation are those who would be left out and left behind unless the Dakota Access Pipeline is stopped. Let’s connect the dots. Paris Mismatches: The Impact of the COP21 Climate Change Negotiations on the Oil and Gas Industries , a report last month by The Chatham House, says that in order to meet global targets (you know, the ones the United States agreed to reach) the “impact on the oil and gas sector will intensify.”

Three key points from that study. First, the United States and other nations that signed, must apply “additional and more stringent measures” on fossil fuels going forward. Second, “as a result, the impact of regulation on the oil and gas sector is set to intensify.” And third, in language that should say in bold—No Dakota Access Pipeline— “avoid over-investment in potentially unnecessary projects.” The report says if nations do not do this then “investment in consumption and production of fossil fuels will continue and oil and gas companies will make risky investments to meet unsustainable demand.” That is exactly the problem in North Dakota.

The same day Secretary Clinton was outlining “American Exceptionalism,” the chief executive officer of Chevron, Steven S. Watson, was posting on LinkedIn why he thinks oil and gas are indispensable. (There’s that word again.) “Ours is a long-term business, so we know that eventually supply and demand will come back into balance and prices will stabilize. The global economy depends on it,” he says. “The energy we produce enables light, heat, mobility, mechanized agriculture, modern communications, the health system that keeps us well, and the many electronic devices that keep us connected and entertained. It’s also the feedstock for everything from crayons to contact lenses, not to mention the basis of our roads and runways.” Watson argues that change will come slowly. Even with reductions in emissions, “oil and natural gas will still account for 44 percent (of all energy use), with coal providing an additional 16 percent.”

I disagree. I think this whole line of thinking misses the impact of disruption. And, as I wrote in my recent piece for YES! Magazine, I think the events at Standing Rock are a disruption of the norm. That logic of “we all need more oil” is a recurring theme used to belittle the actions at Standing Rock. The line goes: Folks drive to the camps using gas; they mark up signs with oil-based writing instruments; and, sleep under fabrics made from petroleum. The charge is, “How can you be against the Dakota Access Pipeline when you use these things?” But no one—not the people at Standing Rock, not the Paris agreement signers (again, including the United States)— is saying we will stop using fossil fuel-based products. What’s being said —and not heard— is that we as humans have to reverse course.

Instead of consuming more oil every year, we need to start using less and leave more oil, gas, and especially coal in the ground. Significantly less. As the Chatham House report says: to “send a strong signal to those who consume and produce carbon-based fuels so that their investment plans can be amended to reflect the shape of a lower carbon economy.” Especially ending the construction of “potentially unnecessary projects.” Tim Kaine, the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee, was asked yesterday if he would stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline. According to a video posted by 350 Action on Twitter, he replied: “That’s one I have to educate myself on” but said the court should take the tribe’s complaint “very seriously.” But the Clinton-Kaine would-be-administration has already said what it thinks about this issue when it promised an energy future “where no one is left out or left behind.” So the question is whether or not those words have meaning.

Mark Trahant

Originally published by
and has been edited by YES!Magazine
September 2, 2016

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    By: Mark Trahant

    Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a journalism professor at the University of North Dakota. He’s a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes and has written about American Indian and Alaska Native issues for more than three decades. His most recent project, TrahantReports, covers the 2016 election with a focus on Native issues and candidates. Follow him on Twitter at @TrahantReports.

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