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A Northern Arapaho climate activist reflects on their experience at the recent UN Climate Conference

A Northern Arapaho Tribal member speaks into a microphone behind a UN COP28 branded podium.
AP News
Big Wind Carpenter speaks at a panel at the United Nations Climate Conference, also known as COP28, in Dubai in December. This was Carpenter’s fourth time attending the conference.

Big Wind Carpenter is a two-spirit member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and is from the Wind River Reservation. They currently work as the Tribal engagement coordinator at the Wyoming Outdoor Council and recently attended the United Nations Climate Conference in Dubai in December, also known as COP28.

Wyoming Public Radio’s Hannah Habermann spoke with Carpenter a few days after they got back from the conference. Carpenter shared their thoughts on what being in Dubai was like, major takeaways from the conference, and the future of energy on the Wind River Reservation.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity. 

Big Wind Carpenter: Weather-wise, it's really warm over there. It's about 90 degrees, 85 degrees, which is very different from the winter I'm used to. I'm glad to be back where there’s snow.

The conference was long, it was a two-week conference. I think two big wins that people have seen are around the loss and damage fund, which essentially is a fund that gives resources to countries from the global south in times of catastrophe.

And then, there's this mention of fossil fuels inside [the conference] being the cause [of climate change]. Essentially, the conference on climate change has kind of shied away from those things. But there was very strong language in this last agreement that mentioned the transition away from fossil fuels. And so people are holding those two wins at this moment.

Hannah Habermann: I know you’re part of the International Indigenous Youth Forum On Climate Change and spent some time speaking at the conference. I'd love to hear a little bit about what you talked about and the things that you’re passionate about elevating on this super international stage.

BWC: I was part of the Wisdom Keepers Delegation over the first couple days and was able to be a part of some formal negotiation proceedings dealing with knowledge holders. Different tribes have traditional ecological knowledge and technologies that just interact with the land in different ways.

That’s really important, especially as a lot of these plans are starting to be made, that they include not only us as politics of recognition, like in the preambles and us just like speaking at panels and side events, but that we’re actually involved in the negotiations process.

The IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) put out this report where 80 percent of the world's biodiversity is protected by Indigenous people, but we make up less than 5 percent of the human population (Editor’s note: This statistic was originally published in a World Bank report). Ensuring that Indigenous people are involved is, like, one of my core things of why I do what I do.

When we're talking about biodiversity and it being surrounded by tribal lands, the Wind River Reservation is no different. Our territory is home to various minerals and fuels, but it's also surrounded by public lands. My advocacy for this landscape has kind of taken my work to the international stage.

In my lifetime, I'm gonna witness our glaciers cease to exist – we have less than 30 years. So, it’s really interesting to bring some of these local stories to the international stage, because oftentimes, we can be spouting facts and they go in one ear and out the other. But once you can start to pull on some peoples’ heartstrings, it seems like they start to make better decisions.

HH: At the UN (United Nations) conference, they reached a deal trying to keep the world in line with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Do you think that goal is possible? And if so, what do you think needs to happen or change to make that happen?

BWC: This is the first year where a fossil fuel CEO was the COP28 President, so we had industry in the driver's seat of the climate negotiations. Historically, fossil fuel lobbyists have shown up en masse, that has been a trend. But the number of fossil fuel lobbyists allowed into the conference this year essentially went up 300 percent from last year. And one of the big asks this year was to get the “fossil fuel phase-out,” but because of this overwhelming support of the fossil fuel people at the negotiations, that language was not added intentionally.

The Secretary General of OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) actually released a letter telling countries and supporters to not listen to any phase-out language and instead intentionally push for transitioning language. So even though we're looking at something like a victory of this new “transitioning away” from fossil fuels, it's actually intentionally coming from the fossil fuel industry. And that is kind of disheartening where you can see this clear, distinct line through who's running these negotiations and who has the most representation, and essentially the industry telling them what to say and then they say it.

HH: How does that influence how you see conversations around energy transitions in Wyoming, and what you think that might look like in the future?

BWC: I'm Northern Arapaho, so I come from an oil and gas tribe. Oil, gas and energy production has been a legacy institution in this state for a long time. You have multi-generational people who've worked on the rigs, multi-generational coal miners. And for a long time, it has been essentially the saying, 'Where oil and gas is, our bread and butter.' I'm not denying that.

And on the reservation, our lives have changed because of oil and gas. When we started profiting from it, I actually don't think that my leaders knew the impacts that it would have on the environment, the impacts that it would have on our health, the impacts that it would have, later, on the climate. I don't think that they knew any of those things when they decided to make those decisions over 100 years ago.

But now we're at a precipice in time where our leaders do know that these minerals that we're deciding to use actually have detriments to our health, to the environment, and, therefore, to the climate. So we have an obligation to start shifting how we handle things for the future generations.

For a long time, because our education system is funded by the fossil fuel industry, a lot of people couldn't talk about climate. But the first climate summit that happened in the state was on the Wind River Reservation, held at the Wind River College. A couple years later, the first statewide conference happened at a border town here in Lander.

Now we're starting to be able to educate people on these situations, and you can't talk about climate if you're not going to talk about what actually causes these situations. So first, as a state, we need to get on the same education – understanding that this is how it was, but now we know the impacts and what are we going to do about it so that we can help future generations and the safety of our planet.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.
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