For decades, climate change politics was a subject without a face. According to Marybeth Long Martello, a scholar of global change science and governance, “Until recently, climate change has been among the faceless forms of global environmental change, virtually devoid of human imagery.” When speaking of rising global temperatures, scientists and policy-makers exhibited graphs, charts, and maps that highlighted research findings. Global warming and its potential for catastrophic results were communicated to the public through a plethora of statistics and occasional images of smoke-emitting factories and polar bears clinging onto icebergs. In the 1990 First Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a scientific body under the United Nations, the section on "impact" was almost entirely dedicated to effects of climate change on plants and animals.

While this approach sought to reach people through hard evidence, it perhaps made political groups that deny global warming seem more convincing. The George C. Marshall Institute, a conservative think tank founded in 1984 by a group of retired scientists, started a campaign denying global warming in the 1990s. Along with similar organizations, it argued that evidence for warming temperatures was insufficient or wrong. Popular arguments pointed out that the Earth was actually cooler in 1998, that satellites show cooling of global temperature, and that sea ice in Antarctica is increasing.

In response to climate change’s scientific proof, opponents also made the argument that most climate scientists do not believe that human activity has caused a disruption of Earth’s climate, as supported by a petition by the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. Seventeen thousand scientists supposedly signed the petition, which rejects the prevailing findings on climate change. As it turned out, the vast majority of these individuals were not in any field related to climate science. But because the primary spokesperson for combating global warming was statistics, political organizations and industries could respond by coming up with their own supposedly scientific proof.

These arguments denying climate change were disproven by rigorously cross-checked findings of decades-long research, conducted by the world’s leading research organizations, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Yet for some people, these arguments were compelling because they reflected what they saw with their own eyes. After all, could a potentially catastrophic disruption of Earth’s climate really be occurring if they themselves find no changes in the environment? For some, statistics—no matter how well researched—carried little personal significance.

In recent years, however, climate change seems to have become more humanized. More and more scientists and policy experts are focusing on the impact of climate change on humans—on not only what could happen to Earth’s entire population, but also what has already been happening to communities in the Arctic. These communities are often indigenous—people who have lived in the region since the beginning of their remembered history—and their experience has been increasingly recognized as crucial to understanding climate change. As such, the indigenous peoples of the North have become the new face of climate change, in science and in politics.

The increased visibility of the indigenous in the Arctic has great implications for communities that have traditionally been among the poorest and least represented worldwide. Through a global platform, indigenous communities can engage governments in greater efforts to address issues of economic and human rights. However, in order for true representation to be realized, national governments and intergovernmental bodies must go beyond using indigenous people as a convenient spokesperson—a mascot—and earnestly engage with them as partners in the fight against climate change and its human consequences.

A Human Face Emerges

Changes in the political nature of the climate issue largely reflect changes in research models and practices. The increased visibility of indigenous people in climate change is closely connected to the way scientists and later on, the public, have come to understand “impact.” In the past 30 years, governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and intergovernmental bodies have periodically conducted climate change assessments—extensive processes in which scientists, policy-makers, and other interested parties gather to consolidate information about the various facets of climate change. The product of a climate change assessment is usually an "impact document," which analyzes the risks and consequences of climate change.

According to Martello, “the meaning and depiction of ‘impact’ have evolved with assumptions about the nature of climate change, who or what is at risk, available resources for understanding and addressing risk, and the composition of the assessment audience.” Climate change assessments in the 1970s were driven by cause-and-effect models that assessed impact based on variables such as crop yield, soil moisture, and sea level. While humans were a crucial part of the ecosystem, particularly in the at-risk regions of the Arctic, they were not seriously considered. Recent assessments, however, have begun to recognize social and cultural losses of communities as inseparable from the overall impact. Whereas earlier assessments mostly relied on numerical data to measure impact, recent assessments have recognized qualitative data such as accounts by indigenous people as legitimate and crucial evidence.

Besides changes in how the assessments are conducted, there have also been significant shifts in who reads the assessments. In earlier assessments, the people that conducted the climate change assessments were also the people that were reading them: scientists and policy experts. Little to no efforts were made to engage the public in the findings. As described by two individuals who played key role in the National Assessment Synthesis Team (NAST), formed in 1998, publicity “wasn’t in the culture.” Recent assessment projects, however, have devoted significant resources to engaging lay audiences in their results.

A clear case of comparison is the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), a four-year circumpolar analysis conducted under the auspices of the Arctic Council and the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC). ACIA demonstrated a tectonic shift in both the production and dissemination of climate change assessment results. It emphasized human perspective, particularly those of the indigenous of the Arctic. It included accounts by indigenous residents of Alaska, as well as photographs of the people of the Saami and Inuit tribes interacting with their natural environments as reindeer herders, hunters, and fishermen.

These qualitative data may serve to complement the quantitative charts and graphs, but they also stand as a focal point in their own right. This visual and humanized representation engages a wide audience, and allows people to see that the effects of climate change are not so abstract. For the average reader, the breaking of ice sheets may seem like an issue removed from real life, but it becomes relevant when there is a real human face behind it. The logic goes: if it can happen to communities in the Arctic, it is possible it can happen to communities anywhere.

Unlike previous reports, ACIA invested heavily in publicity and utilized diverse outlets of information. Whereas previous climate change assessments received little public notice, ACIA held a formal event for the release of its impact document, attaining coverage by more than 200 major newspapers as well as by television stations across the world. Beyond the digital document, ACIA also created and screened a documentary that describes its ten key findings, prominently representing photographs and videos of indigenous people.

The film also featured interviews with leaders of prominent indigenous organizations, such as Aqqaluk Lynge, President of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), a multinational non-governmental organization that represents the Inuit people and holds special consultative status at the United Nations. In the film, Lynge poignantly notes the human impact of climate change, “Adapting to new conditions is what the Inuit way of life has been for thousands of years, but this one is so rapid, and will change profoundly many, many communities’ way of life.”

ACIA exemplifies the intersection of scientific representation and political representation. The indigenous people of the Arctic were not simply objects that were covered more extensively in ACIA than in past assessments. They functioned as experts with special knowledge and authorities whom ACIA leaders actively consulted. Indigenous people were involved in not only the chapter dedicated to indigenous impact, “The Changing Arctic: Indigenous Perspectives,” but also in writing and reviewing all eighteen chapters of the ACIA assessment.

The plights of the indigenous communities also gained the attention of political leaders, such as Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jan Petersen, then US Senator Hillary Clinton, and US Senator John McCain, all of whom were featured in the ACIA film. As political leaders in the eight Arctic nations began to see climate change as a human rights issue, indigenous organizations have also worked to raise their voice on larger platforms, as demonstrated by ICC and the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) established in 2000. While the Forum includes experts on indigenous issues from all regions of the world, four of the sixteen current Forum Members are of indigenous tribes in the Arctic—one of the numerous examples of increased political representation of the indigenous in the region.

Another milestone for the indigenous, in the Arctic and elsewhere, was the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 13, 2007, UNDRIP was the first international instrument to officially establish the principles of self-government, self-determination, and autonomy for the indigenous. The UN Declaration has been cited extensively in indigenous people’s movements, and has helped push the US government to officially protect indigenous people’s sacred places, address widespread violence against indigenous women, and incorporate indigenous governments in negotiations.

A Voice Still Unheard

While climate change politics has given indigenous communities of the Arctic a global platform, their political representation remains utterly insufficient. For one, intergovernmental initiatives against climate change often do not consult indigenous communities in the pertinent region, and as a result, have an overwhelming destructive impact.

A clear example is Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD), a UN program that uses financial incentives to encourage developing countries to reduce carbon emissions through sustainable forest management. Developed in 2005 and discussed at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference, REDD seems like a practical and effective way to include the developing world in efforts against climate change. However, organizations representing indigenous people, including Survival International and International Forum of Indigenous People on Climate Change, an indigenous advisory body to the UNFCCC, expressed concerns that without including the UNDRIP in its document, REDD’s impact could lead to the eviction of forest-dwelling indigenous communities, deprivation of basic sources of income, and other losses.

REDD has since put into place multiple safeguards, including “the full and effective participation of relevant stakeholders, in particular indigenous peoples and local communities.” In reality, however, there have been multiple reports of cases of indigenous tribes, from the Penan of Malaysia to Ogiek of Kenya, getting evicted from their land to make space for sustainable development projects. While indigenous peoples have become increasingly associated with the movement against climate change, what is left out of the equation is how conservation, sustainability, and other green efforts could jeopardize the right of the indigenous to their land and resources.

All large-scale political initiatives require compromises and tradeoffs. Indeed, the tension arising from projects such as REDD illuminates what the reality of addressing the human side of climate change is like: messy, difficult, and never truly clear cut. In climate politics, indigenous people face two major barriers. One is getting the scientific community and the larger public to see the ongoing human impact of climate change.

As shown by previous cases, establishing a language of indigenous rights does not translate into the actual protection of those rights.

Though significant progress has been achieved in demonstrating the impact, efforts to actually address on-the-ground impact have been slow to follow. Kivalina is a clear example. A tiny coastal village in Alaska inhabited by the Inupiat people, Kivalina was officially labeled “imminently threatened” by climate-driven disasters. Decades ago, the entire village of Kivalina had to relocate to avoid being washed away. The move was carried out alone by the impoverished community without any government assistance and, unsurprising, without any coverage by major media outlets. Stories of communities like Kivalina have been deemed by the government and the media to be unworthy of attention. Currently, dozens of indigenous villages and towns like Kivalina face the threat of being once again washed away by floods and erosion. State and federal governments, as in the past, remain quiet about relocation plans.

As shown by previous cases, establishing a language of indigenous rights does not translate into the actual protection of those rights. Similarly, having a seat at the table—even at the UN—does not mean indigenous perspectives are given the necessary consideration.

A Collaboration for the Future

Given these barriers, governments and intergovernmental bodies must recognize the issues indigenous peoples face in all of their complexity. On both the international and the local level, political initiatives and public policies regarding climate change must include and value consultation with the indigenous people that they concern.

On the international level, indigenous groups have established a presence in multiple UN forums and conferences. The Arctic Council also has six indigenous Permanent Participants, and the Ottawa Declaration that formally established the Arctic Council emphasized “the involvement of the Arctic indigenous communities.” However, none of this means much until the governments that are involved begin to take the voices of the indigenous participants seriously. The Arctic Council can take several measures to ensure this.

First, it should confer the Permanent Participants legal recognition, which means the violation of their rights can have legal implications under international law. This gives actual power to the language of indigenous rights. Secondly, similar to other intergovernmental bodies, the Arctic Council is hindered in its actions by geopolitical conflicts. While the member nations dispute over newly accessible natural resources in the Arctic, indigenous communities become the casualties of geopolitical quarrels. Member nations must remain committed to their mandate of including and involving Arctic indigenous communities—until they do so, establishing a truly peaceful and sustainable Arctic region is impossible.

On the local level, indigenous groups are in need of more grassroots coalitions. Alone, indigenous communities may be ignored by city and state governments, as well as interested corporations. Yet, as shown by Shell’s cancelation of drilling plans in the Alaskan Arctic after an Alaskan coalition filed a lawsuit, the cooperation of Native and environmental conservation groups can catalyze important shifts.

While the member nations dispute over newly accessible natural resources in the Arctic, indigenous communities become the casualties of geopolitical quarrels.

While all Arctic indigenous communities share common issues, their ability to take actions varies enormously by locale and country. In 2014, Russian officials repeatedly barred activists for indigenous rights from attending UN conferences. Toward this end, popular support of indigenous rights can create a crucial impact. In the US, individual citizens can contact their legislators to express their concern for such repression of personal mobility—when the issue of indigenous rights becomes more of a priority for the US government, it will provide a signal to other member nations to reevaluate their stances.

Honoring the perspectives and needs of indigenous communities in the Arctic is not easy, and may not be economically advantageous from a short-term perspective. But overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges like climate change requires such type of collective commitment. We would be doing ourselves and future generations a disservice by ignoring the current opportunities for cooperation and understanding. The lack of political representation for the indigenous is not merely a problem for the Arctic communities. As noted by Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Chair of Inuit Circumpolar Conference, “Arctic is considered the health barometer for the planet.” What happens in the Arctic is reflective and indicative of the world’s state of being. If so, communities everywhere else should—and need to—start giving heed to what is happening to their neighbors up North.