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Joel Clement of Wayne, a former climate policy expert at the Department of the Interior, is a senior fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
President-elect Joe Biden made history this week by nominating Rep. Deb Haaland, a Native American from New Mexico, to be secretary of the Department of the Interior. She will be the first Native American cabinet secretary, and preside over a sprawling agency that manages one-fifth of America’s land mass, leases public lands and waters for oil and gas and mining, oversees our national parks and Wildlife refuges and houses the scientific expertise at the U.S. Geological Survey.
She is extremely qualified for the role. Since her election to Congress in 2018, Haaland has been a quick study and a strong leader — not only on major Native issues such as health care, suicide and the disappearance and abuse of Native women, but also on the science, public lands, climate change and biodiversity issues that the Trump Administration has tried to torpedo.
She’ll have a lot to clean up at Interior. Her predecessors, Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt, have done their best to hand the keys of our public lands over to oil, gas, and mining interests. They marginalized scientists and experts, cut the American public out of decision making, and presided over the largest reduction in public lands protection in U.S. history.
As a former senior executive and whistleblower at Interior, I had a front-row seat to Haaland’s concerns for the staff and mission of the Interior Department when I testified to the House Natural Resources Committee in 2018. I was there to advocate for the career experts at Interior and talk about their poor treatment during the Trump Administration. Haaland’s questions and concerns got straight to the point, and it was clear she understood the importance of science, the urgency of climate change, and the need to recognize and elevate public service.
Haaland’s nomination is good news for scientists, for the 70,000 career employees at Interior and for our nation’s public lands. Those public lands will play a crucial role in mitigating and adapting to climate change, so her nomination is also good news for every American that is awake to the urgency of the climate crisis.
For indigenous people, however, her nomination is more than an inspiration. Interior is home to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, responsible for Indian education, health and other crucial needs, and is the federal trustee for the 574 federally-recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes. The agency has a dark history of forsaking these roles. For the Interior Department in particular to be led by an indigenous person marks a watershed moment for Native interests whose rights and sovereignty have been embattled throughout U.S. history.
Her nomination is a sea change for indigenous people, but not because she’ll be able to right all the wrongs of colonization, or address the many systemic barriers to Native American well-being. It’s a sea change because it demonstrates the power of investing in indigenous leadership and institutions.
It’s a sea change because it highlights the crucial leadership role of indigenous people in building resilience rather than merely portraying them as climate victims. This is not just symbolic; indigenous knowledge may hold the key to our resilience, especially in frontline communities in the Arctic and elsewhere.
The emergence of leaders like Representative Haaland, who as a young mother struggled to pay the bills and afford health care for her daughter, demonstrates what is possible, and may help clear a path for more progress on the many social and environmental justice struggles we face here in the U.S. and here in Maine. We can honor this nomination by investing in indigenous institutions in Maine and nationwide.
Deb Haaland’s cabinet nomination is very good news for all Americans.