Justice forward: Tribes, climate adaptation and responsibility


Federally-recognized tribes must adapt to many ecological challenges arising from climate change, from the effects of glacier retreat on the habitats of culturally significant species to how sea leave rise forces human communities to relocate. The governmental and social institutions supporting tribes in adapting to climate change are often constrained by political obstructions, raising concerns about justice. Beyond typical uses of justice, which call attention to violations of formal rights or to considerations about the degree to which some populations may have caused anthropogenic climate change, a justice framework should guide how leaders, scientists and professionals of all heritages and who work with or for federally-recognized tribes understand what actions are morally essential for supporting tribes’ adaptation efforts. This paper motivates a shift to a forward-looking framework of justice. The framework situates justice within the systems of responsibilities that matter to tribes and many others, which range from webs of inter-species relationships to government-to-government partnerships. Justice is achieved when these systems of responsibilities operate in ways that support the continued flourishing of tribal communities.

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  1. 1.

    For a rich articulation of collective continuance as “environmental heritage,” see (Figueroa 2001).

  2. 2.

    Collective continuance is a concern to all communities, though this paper focuses on tribes. See Schlosberg and Carruthers (2010) for an account of Indigenous peoples and capabilities theories of justice.

  3. 3.

    See Cuomo 2011 for an important, and related, account of climate justice and responsibility.

  4. 4.

    See Tuana 2013 for a related conversation and key insights into gender and climate science.


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I wish to thank the blind referees, Kristie Dotson, Becky Neher and Julie Maldonado for their dedication, time and insightful comments.

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Correspondence to Kyle Powys Whyte.

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This article is part of a Special Issue on “Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples in the United States: Impacts, Experiences, and Actions” edited by Julie Koppel Maldonado, Rajul E. Pandya, and Benedict J. Colombi.

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Whyte, K.P. Justice forward: Tribes, climate adaptation and responsibility. Climatic Change 120, 517–530 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-013-0743-2

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  • Climate Change Impact
  • Wild Rice
  • Traditional Ecological Knowledge
  • Political Order
  • Ecological Challenge