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Part One: A pluriverse of conversations

Centering Indigenous Rights to Challenge Climate Colonialism

Sharon Stein and Jan Hare

Higher education institutions have positioned themselves as leaders of climate action. Many colleges and universities have created sustainability offices, approved climate action strategies, and developed new funding streams for climate-related research, teaching, and community engagement. A subset of institutions, including our own, have gone further to declare a “climate emergency,” often at the insistence of student activists. Yet the prevailing approach to climate change at most colleges and universities remains grounded in the assumption that we can and should simply make existing systems and institutions more sustainable, even though these are the same systems and institutions that led us to a climate crisis in the first place (Sumida Huaman & Walker, 2023). When calls for decarbonization are disconnected from calls for decolonization, we tend to see practices and policies that contribute to “business as usual, but greener.” 


We write this article as two education scholars from different backgrounds – Sharon is a US-born white settler and Jan is an Anishinaabe-kwe from M’Chigeeng First Nation – who share a concern that higher education will contribute to the reproduction of climate colonialism both within and beyond the walls of the institution (see Stein & Hare, 2023). Zografos and Robbins (2020) define climate colonialism as “the deepening or expanding of domination of less powerful countries and peoples through initiatives that intensify foreign exploitation of poorer nations’ resources or undermine the sovereignty of native and Indigenous communities in the course of responding to the climate crisis” (p. 543). As Carmona and colleagues write (2023), “The legacy of colonialism has not only increased Indigenous Peoples’ vulnerability to climate change, but also subjected them to climate policies that violate their individual and collective rights.” 

Higher education institutions have climate policies and practices that govern their campuses and shape their approaches to teaching, research, and community engagement. But they are also spaces in which climate policies and practices are incubated and translated to many other contexts and sectors of society. Thus, interrupting climate colonialism requires attending to accountabilities beyond campus grounds, in particular responsibilities to Indigenous Peoples.

We suggest that addressing the risk of climate colonialism in higher education requires two basic recognitions. The first recognition is that colonialism is a root cause and driver of climate change. This has long been recognized by Indigenous Peoples and was recently acknowledged by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2022 report. The second recognition is that higher education has been and continues to be complicit in settler colonialism, including through the production and dissemination of colonial knowledge, the occupation and degradation of Indigenous lands, and complicity in educational assimilation.

In addition to these two basic recognitions, we have identified five common themes within Indigenous climate justice literature, as well as other de-/anti-colonial climate justice perspectives (e.g., Achiume, 2022; Carmona et al., 2023; Davis & Todd, 2017; Deivanayagam et al., 2022; Hernandez et al., 2022; Hickel, 2020; Indigenous Climate Action, 2021; McGregor et al., 2020; Redvers et al., 2023; Reed et al., 2021; Whyte, 2017, 2018). These themes are:

  1. Whiter and wealthier communities are disproportionately responsible for carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, and other forms of ecological degradation through systems and infrastructures of extractivism, exploitation, and expropriation;

  2. Climate change is disproportionately experienced by Indigenous communities, Black communities, other communities of colour, and communities in the Global South;

  3. Indigenous communities and other communities on the frontline of climate change hold place-based knowledges and practices about their lands and territories that are routinely sidelined in climate action, but which should guide efforts to address climate change; 

  4. Indigenous communities have inherent rights to make decisions about their lands and their futures – rights which are often ignored in many mainstream climate solutions; and,

  5. Non-Indigenous people have an obligation to interrupt and repair the effects of climate colonialism, which some people have described as climate or carbon reparations.

When these considerations are ignored in climate-related research, teaching, and community engagement, universities are likely to reproduce climate colonialism (Stein et al., 2023). This reproduction is often unintentional. For instance, the common tendency to seek technical and technocratic solutions to climate change is rarely grounded in an intention to harm Indigenous People and their territories, yet this is often the impact. Many “green energy” and carbon capture projects require access to vast swaths of land, often Indigenous land, and have devastating consequences for the social and ecological health of those territories (Hickel & Slamersak, 2022; Whyte, 2020; Zografos & Robbins, 2020). Indigenous leaders are often excluded from decisions about decarbonization projects that will affect their lands, and university climate action efforts generally fail to consider local Indigenous Nations and international Indigenous partners. 

So, what might be done to interrupt the reproduction of climate colonialism in higher education? We suggest that one possible leverage point is to reflect on the implications of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) for climate action. UNDRIP was signed by the UN General Assembly in 2007. It outlines the minimum conditions for protecting the rights, dignity, and survival of Indigenous Peoples. Thus far, 148 countries have signed UNDRIP, yet it lacks any legally binding enforcement mechanism. Some countries, including Canada, have passed their own federal legislation to implement UNDRIP. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act received royal assent in 2021. The Act pledges to ensure that Canadian laws align with UNDRIP, and to create an action plan to achieve this alignment. Alongside this federal law, the governments of British Columbia and the Northwest Territories have passed their own legislation that pledges to implement UNDRIP.

Implementation of UNDRIP has been slow, and there are varied perspectives about its implications in settler colonial states, particularly given its grounding in Western legal frameworks. For instance, McGregor observes that UNDRIP relies on the will of nation-states for its implementation, does not challenge the colonial sovereignty of those nation-states, and does not capture the epistemological and ontological dimensions of Indigenous law (McGregor, 2018; McGregor, Whitaker, & Sritharan, 2020). Despite these limitations, Indigenous scholars like McGregor have argued for the importance of ensuring that, at a minimum, climate action as well as efforts to address biodiversity loss respect the rights outlined in UNDRIP (Carmona et al., 2023; McGregor, 2018; McGregor, Whitaker, & Sritharan, 2020; Redvers et al., 2023).

In order to consider the implications of UNDRIP for higher education climate action, we reflected on our experiences as members of a working group on Indigenous engagement as part of the Climate Emergency Task Force at our own university. We approached our responsibilities as task force members with a keen recognition of the paradox between the urgency of climate change and the slow work of relationship building that is required in order to confront climate change in responsible ways that address its root causes (rather than just its symptoms) and enable forms of coordinated action that protect the rights and well-being of all peoples and other-than-human beings (Simpson & Pizarro, 2023; Whyte, 2020). Ultimately, we determined that the time allotted to us for pursuing Indigenous engagement was insufficient, and focused instead on outlining several guiding considerations for pursuing proper engagement.

One of our primary concerns as a working group was to map how UNDRIP might be applied to the draft Climate Emergency Task Force Report. We summarize our findings here:

  1. Engaging with Indigenous People about institutional climate action requires more than just tokenistic dialogues – it requires respecting their sovereignty and ensuring their free, prior, and informed consent for any activities that will affect their communities and lands. Institutions must be transparent about how their Indigenous engagement efforts will meaningfully inform university decisions, policies, and practices.

  2. Institutions have a responsibility to enact both material restitution and relational repair in order to redress the impacts of their historical and ongoing colonial actions. Climate action offers an important opportunity to enact redress for these systemic harms.

  3. Indigenous Peoples have the right to protect and preserve their knowledge systems, cultures, and histories. Yet Indigenous knowledges and educational practices have long been sidelined in higher education. In both teaching and research, institutions should support Indigenous scholars and knowledge keepers in ways that respect their intellectual sovereignty and recognize their role as producers of climate knowledge.

  4. Higher education’s engagement with Indigenous communities is often oriented by institutional priorities, rather than community priorities. In the context of climate change, colleges and universities have an opportunity to challenge and reverse this colonial pattern by supporting Indigenous-led research, education, and community engagement efforts oriented by Indigenous self-determination.

Overall, we conclude that if colleges and universities in settler colonial contexts like Canada seek to interrupt rather than reproduce climate colonialism, they must substantively commit to ensuring that their climate actions respect Indigenous rights, knowledges, and sovereignty. This is no small task, given that colonialism has been baked into the DNA of these institutions, and these institutions continue to occupy Indigenous Peoples’ territories without their consent. Yet the enormity of the challenges posed by climate destabilization and ecological breakdown demand that we rethink the inherited colonial practices that led to this crisis point. 


We will need to challenge the illusion that humans are separate from nature, and that Western knowledge is superior to other ways of knowing, so that we can learn to develop relationships grounded in trust, respect, reciprocity, consent, and accountability. By doing so, we may be better prepared to coordinate justice-oriented responses that draw on the wisdom of multiple knowledge traditions and respect human rights, Indigenous rights, and the rights of nature (Whyte, 2020). This will not be easy, especially for white settlers who are accustomed to having their intellectual authority and moral benevolence affirmed. However, if we seek to uphold our responsibilities to past, current, and future generations of all species, we have no choice but to try.


About the Authors

Dr. Sharon Stein is a white settler scholar and associate professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia and a visiting professor with the Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa. Her research asks what kind of education can prepare people to confront their complicity in systemic colonial violence and ecological unsustainability, and to navigate local and global challenges in more relevant, responsible, and reparative ways. She is a founding member of the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective and the author of Unsettling the University: Confronting the Colonial Foundations of US Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022). 


Dr. Jan Hare is an Anishinaabe-kwe scholar and educator from the M’Chigeeng First Nation, located in northern Ontario, Canada. She is professor and dean pro tem in the faculty of education at the University of British Columbia. In addition, she holds a Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) in Indigenous Pedagogy. Her research is concerned with transforming educational institutions from early childhood through K–12 to postsecondary education by centering Indigenous knowledges and pedagogies in teaching and learning. This work has led to the development of the “Reconciliation Through Indigenous Education” MOOC, which has been taken by more than seventy thousand people worldwide. Hare’s current research explores the instructional practices of postsecondary educators incorporating Indigenous knowledges and perspectives into higher education classrooms through collaborative inquiry. 


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Zografos, C., & Robbins, P. (2020). Green sacrifice zones, or why a Green New Deal cannot ignore the cost shifts of just transitions. One Earth, 3(5), 543–546. 

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