National Climate Assessment: U-M expert can discuss impacts on Indigenous peoples, environmental justice

November 14, 2023
Concept illustration of environmental justice for Indigenous peoples. Image credit: Nicole Smith, made with Midjourney


Today, the U.S. government released the Fifth National Climate Assessment, known as NCA5. These periodic national assessments are considered the preeminent source of climate information for the United States.

The new report assesses the science of climate change, its impacts and the nation’s options for reducing present and future risk.

University of Michigan environmental justice scholar Kyle Whyte, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, is the lead author of the new report’s “Tribes and Indigenous Peoples” chapter and an author of the “Environmental Justice” chapter.

Whyte is the George Willis Pack Professor at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability and a professor of philosophy. His research focuses on Indigenous peoples’ rights and knowledge in climate change and conservation planning, education and policy.

Kyle Whyte
Kyle Whyte

“Indigenous involvement in the NCA has a long legacy, going back to the 1990s. We have fought for years to elevate our voices and knowledge in the NCA. I am so excited that this year’s chapter is authored by a majority of Indigenous scientists, including some of the most dynamic early-career scholars I have had the privilege to work with,” Whyte said.

“For the last six decades, the Indigenous peoples’ movement to address climate and energy issues has generated new knowledge of the severity of environmental risks and the solutions for fostering a sustainable and ethical world. The new ‘Tribes and Indigenous Peoples’ chapter reflects this accumulated knowledge.”

Indigenous peoples in the United States represent more than 700 communities and tribal nations. They are culturally and politically unique and self-determining societies in North America, Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The new report’s “Tribes and Indigenous Peoples” chapter presents three key messages, Whyte says:

  1. Indigenous peoples face risks to well-being and livelihoods from climate change and barriers to energy sovereignty. Climate change continues to cause negative effects on critical aspects of Indigenous peoples’ well-being, including their livelihoods, health, nutrition and cultural practices, as well as the ecological resilience of their territories.
  2. Self-determination is key to Indigenous peoples’ resilience to climate change. By exercising their right to self-determination, Indigenous peoples can respond to climate change in ways that meet the needs and aspirations of their communities.
  3. Indigenous leadership guides climate change response. Indigenous-led organizations, initiatives and movements have demonstrated diverse strategies for climate adaptation and mitigation that are guided by Indigenous knowledge and values and by the pursuit of Indigenous rights.

“Given that many readers are unfamiliar with Indigenous peoples, the chapter represents one of the best efforts I have witnessed in my career to do something extremely challenging,” Whyte said. “That is, the chapter creates an extremely clear and practical articulation of why Indigenous peoples face greater risks than other populations from climate change and the rationale behind the measures Indigenous peoples are taking today to take action.”

At the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability, Whyte teaches in the environmental justice specialization. He is founding faculty director of the Tishman Center for Social Justice and the Environment and principal investigator of the Energy Equity Project.

Whyte, who serves on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, is also an author of the new report’s environmental justice chapter. In December 2022, he was one of seven distinguished scientists named U.S. Science Envoys by the State Department.