Part of counteracting global warming is to get back to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Currently it's topping 400 ppm.

Climate Change: What Will It Take to Get Back to 350 (ppm)?

Winona LaDuke

In the wake of Earth Day, as protests against the Keystone XL pipeline continue this week in Washington D.C., concerns about climate change reign paramount in the minds of many. Indigenous Peoples have been observing the environment for thousands of years and have seen up close how fast things are changing. As Nobel laureates, climate scientists and celebrities have pointed out, Mother Earth is reaching a temperature tipping point. Carbon dioxide has reached 400 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The most it should be to avoid a tipping point is 350, according to calculations by climate scientist James Hansen.

But problems are not all that Turtle Island’s original inhabitants can see. There are also solutions. In 2008 environmentalist Bill McKibbin formed, named for Hansen’s CO2 number. Earlier this year, Indian Country Today Media Network asked some leading indigenous experts what it would take to get back to 350. Here, the Anishinaabe activist and author Winona LaDuke, who is this week standing side by side in Washington with other tribal leaders as part of the Cowboys and Indians Alliance protesting Keystone XL, begins with a hard look inward at the Native contribution to these ills—and some innovative programs that are counteracting them.


Stop doing stupid stuff.  Combusting coal is, well, so last millennium, and Navajo and Crow tribal leadership are intent on resurrecting and staying wedded to a dysfunctional and archaic fossil fuels economy. Crow’s Cloud Peak Mine, for instance, the tribal government’s newest proposal, would add 28.3 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. The Navajo Nation’s decision to buy the BHP Billiton mine, a 40-year-old coal strip mine, will add another big chunk. And it doesn’t matter if that coal is burned in the U.S., or if it’s burned in China. We all live in the same world.

We need a moratorium on fossil fuels extraction and exploration. Here’s how the math works: In order to keep our planet’s temperature from rising about two degrees, which is what we really, really want to do, we can only combust 565 gigatons of carbon. That sounds sort of like a lot. The problem is that fossil fuel companies, whether Cloud Peak, the Navajo’s Billiton, Exxon, Suncor or whomever, hold an estimated 2,795 gigatons of carbon on their books as assets or reserves. The Alberta oil sands alone represent 240 gigatons of carbon if the other 95 percent is extracted. No idea on the carbon footprint of fracking, and other forms of extreme extraction, like blowing off the top of 500 mountains in Appalachia to sell coal to India, or drilling in the Arctic. All I know is that that is extreme, and a bad idea. 

Stop wasting money and time. There are the pipelines—the Keystone XL is about $7 billion of bad investment idea, and then there are the Enbridge, Sandpiper, Kinder Morgan, West East and Line 9, all billions of dollars that could be spent on things like infrastructure, efficiency and a smart grid. That money and those investments, frankly, are going to benefit mostly some guys like Enbridge, Trans Canada and the Koch brothers, and they are all doing fine. They don’t need our help.

Do the right thing. North Dakota baffles me. That state is the windiest state in the darn country, and what does it do for an energy policy? Frack hydrocarbons. At the Fort Berthold Reservation, Chairman Tex Hall is priding himself in creating the Kuwait of North America. Yet that reservation has 17,000 times more wind energy than it could use. And instead of putting up turbines, which would be like investing now in the upfront costs and then projecting the price of fuel into the future (this is an energy security and economic security strategy), the Hall administration is keen on fracking most of the reservation, and putting up an oil refinery, to extract, say, 20 years of oil, tops. Then there’s Montana and the Crow. Crow has 15,000 megawatts of potential. Same story.


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