Finding the Middle Ground: Reggie Joule and the President’s Task Force

By Lana Ollier
Reggie Joule, former mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough, was one of the two indigenous representatives on the President’s State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. The Task Force appointed by President Obama released a report with recommendations to the President in 2014. We spoke to Mr Joule to understand the work of this Task Force and other possibilities and challenges for indigenous participation in the political process. One dominant theme that came up in talking to Mr Joule was the need to find a middle ground based on mutual understanding and compromise – a middle ground between economic development and nature conservation, a middle ground between federal and local interests. In finding that middle ground, Joule suggested, think-tanks like Polar Research and Policy Initiative (PRPI) could play an important role.

What is the work you were doing for the Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience?

The Task Force that I sat on had a one-year life, and there were 26 members in total that were appointed by President Obama. Those were governors of states, mayors, county commissioners and two indigenous people – and I was one of those. We met four times officially, over the course of one year and we had several teleconferences. A lot of it was people bringing their experiences of whatever capacities and constituencies they served to the forefront.

Would you say the Task Force has been a success?

Yes, I believe it has been a success in so far as that we were able to bring some important issues to the attention of some high-level people, and we started a discussion. And that is important because while I think that the President is convinced (certainly also many others) that there are certain issues around climate change, there are a lot of folks in Congress who do not necessarily share his viewpoint. So that is also the precondition for everything that we did is this Task Force, and that made it a bit challenging. But again, I believe that we were able to raise the level of discussion and highlighted some of the experiences, the opportunities and the challenges of what is going on across the US and the various territories with regards to climate change.

Were you also able to raise awareness for the challenges indigenous and local communities in the North face?

Yes, I think we were able to raise some awareness. Not to say that it was not challenging at times. This is mainly because of a lack in organisational resources. A governor has the resources of his state, which allow him to pull together the information and develop ideas. Similarly, a mayor has the weight of his office to bring along and push where it is needed. The same applies to county commissioners. The two of us, although we represented a quite large group of people from everywhere around the US, definitely had a lack of resources. We have no staff or the weight of an office, but instead we were helped by volunteers. Volunteers who thought that the voices, experiences and urgencies of some of the things that were being faced by those communities needed to be brought out. So that was challenging. Nevertheless, I think we had an impact in so far that we were able to raise awareness. Not only were we able to incorporate some of our issues into the main report, but we were also able to issue a separate report specifically on Indigenous peoples.

I think one of the advantages that we had was that we have a unique relationship with the US Government and the current administration that is really willing to listen to our concerns and very involved with the issue of climate change. Another thing that allowed us to make up for our lack in organisational resources was that one of the departments came forward and volunteered to give us webinar time. Those webinars allowed us to focus on individual kinds of things and hear from different people across the country and take testimonies.

So the outcomes of this Task Force have been multiple reports; what are those reports trying to achieve on a practical level?

Mostly, they were about raising awareness among different people and especially people in Congress. It is certainly an advantage when working together with the President that he commands great authority and influence and that gave us in a sense the possibility to communicate those issues at a higher level. The way I see it, this Task Force was initiated as the bottom-up information-sharing process, meaning the different tribes coming up to the level of the President, sharing their knowledge and experiences. But once we made those recommendations, then there was the opportunity, and there still is, of that information going from the top down again – spreading across various political levels.

What is it that you are bringing from the bottom-up? What were your goals going into that Task Force?

I was generally trying to convey a range of interconnected messages through my participation in the Task Force. It is very important to understand that our communities are quite remote and isolated. For example, in Alaska, we have 229 tribes, most of which are rural far-away villages. That comes with a distinct set of challenges.

One of the most important ones probably being that the costs of living in those regions is quite high, and this concerns transport, goods and services, as well as supplies in general. For example, fuel is quite expensive, although it came down more recently. I think I bought some gasoline the other day for 5 dollars and 49 cents a gallon; two years ago, that same gallon was still a lot more expensive. The problem is that this is the same fuel that we require to heat our homes.

On the other hand, there is, however, a lack of economic opportunities and possibilities to gain revenue in those regions. So that of course makes it difficult to pay for those higher costs of living and that presents challenges.

Additionally, we have a lack of supportive infrastructure, and that is also related to the remoteness of the communities we reside in. Because when the US builds up infrastructure, whether it is for energy or roads or economic development or anything like that, it’s usually to benefit the masses and oftentimes that is not where we live.

Furthermore, and this is directly connected to climate change, we, of course, have a problem with coastal erosion, river erosion, and the increasing degradation of our drinking water. And those issues become a direct problem of life safety.

So, for us, it is important to give a voice to those challenges peoples face and those experiences they have.

It was interesting for me to see that the President is certainly up to speed on a lot of those issues, but it is also important to educate other members of Congress.

The discussion surrounding Arctic Governance is often tied to the discussion around climate change. How far do you see climate change happening, how far is it affecting you in Alaska, and does it perhaps also provide opportunities?

I choose to be the kind of person that even when faced with multiple challenges, I see that in those challenges, there are opportunities. I think we do have a lot of opportunities in some of these challenges, and we need to find ways to address them.

For instance, as Indigenous people, we can probably be very worried with lesser ice and warmer oceans and less ice during the course of the year and warmer rain and the potential impact this is going to have on marine mammals, which is our main food supply with fish. We also worry about what that is going to mean in terms of coastal erosion.

On the other hand, we can be certain that increasing amounts of open water will lead to an increase in marine shipping, because of the opening up of the Northwest Passage, which significantly shortens the distance between Europe and Asia. So some of what we see as threats, others see as opportunities. But there might also be ways to profit from that and a way in which our communities can profit. This is not so much from the shipping industry itself, but from the build up of different aspects of marine infrastructure that need to be put in place and concern national security, environmental security and energy security. The development of those aspects will possibly provide opportunities. With increase in shipping, there will certainly be a need for the development of marine and coastal infrastructure, as the US is currently lagging behind in that.

Do you have the chance to participate in political decision-making on a more regular basis? Are your concerns generally heard in the political process?

I think the main problem with political participation is that too much of the policy-making is taking sides: Yes, you can do it; no, you can’t do it. In the end, a lot of us tend to come into the middle which is: Yes, you can do this, but here are the strings attached. Every now and again, we run into a situation where we have to say no and make other compromises we don’t care for. Usually, there’s a way if people are willing to engage in some give and take and find a middle ground.

So, for example, on the one hand, we want development in our regions, and that was also something that I pressed upon the President when he came to my hometown in Alaska. He is very concerned about the environment, and I understand that, because we are just as concerned, if not more, about the environment which we choose to call home. So we appreciate his efforts, but we also have to find a way to eke out a living and find some value through all of that, and that is sometimes difficult. We have been wards of the government for a long time, and there is no pride in being a ward of a government. When you don’t have a way to earn your living based on your sweat, your talents and your efforts, but that instead something is given to you, that you don’t have to work for, there is not the same amount of pride in being who you are.

So generally, it is important to consider each side, enter into dialogue and work towards a mutual understanding.

The same is true for the divide often made between traditional knowledge and western science. Traditional knowledge is incredibly valuable, especially with regards to dealing with climate change, because Indigenous peoples have been living on this land for a very long time but its value is often not fully recognised. So there needs to be a dialogue between those two different kinds of knowledge, which eventually needs to lead to more of a partnership.

Do you feel like you have the opportunity to voice your concerns effectively to the outside, despite those isolated incidents of the Task Force or when the President comes to visit?

It is certainly getting better. Partly this is because of the current administration, which made it clear that the tribal governments have a ear in it. This has also become clear from what happened at Standing Rock. Often, it may not come in until late in the game, when it is absolutely necessary that things are worked out, but in this case, the President stepped up and did something.

On the other hand, those of us who are Alaskan Natives, who live in the Arctic, we are not simply tribal; we are indigenous for sure, but we are also members of a corporation, and that gives us certain opportunities to steer economic development. Because collectively, we are corporate owners. The people who run those corporations are people like myself; I am a tribal member, but also a shareholder. Our corporations are very active in economic development because that is what corporations do. But as tribal people, we are also asking ourselves how to find that balance in economic development as it relates to things like climate change. Sometimes, it is difficult to mitigate those challenges and find the balance between what we are striving for as tribal people and what we are striving for as shareholders of a corporation. So often, we have this mixed debate of things that are going on in the state.

I think another problem also exists on the administrative level, where there is a certain split between the government and the corporations, where there actually needs to be more of an inclusion. So we definitely need to develop better channels for those two entities to cooperate.

So you felt that the willingness to engage was a particular feature of the Obama administration. Will this situation change under another administration?

In the event that Donald Trump is elected, there will be a change, but it is of course uncertain what exactly those changes are going to be. It is really difficult to anticipate anything based on his campaigning. That is also what worries me, but it could also be a 180-degree shift in some ways. Obama has been great for the tribes, but not good for the corporations. Donald Trump could be great for the corporations and probably not good for the tribes. Hopefully, someone like Hillary Clinton could find that balance.

What role, in your opinion, can think-tanks like PRPI play in the Arctic?

PRPI’s challenge and role is to identify the policy issues that are creating frictions from clearly two sides and see if there is a middle ground that people can work on.

For example, when I think of offshore development, or much of economic development in general, a think-tank’s and in particular PRPI’s role should be to find a compromise between the tribes and the corporations. A compromise where the tribe’s fears are taken into consideration, where the concerns of those that are hesitant towards further developments are addressed, and also the potential. In a sense, the goal should be to switch heads for a minute and see if there is a middle ground. I think that there’s an example of that happening in the North Slope area, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation; another example affiliated with the Arctic Council is also the Arctic Development Working Group. It is important to recognise that there are always several pieces to a puzzle.

Let me give you an example of where that kind of work is needed. In Kivalina, a hundred miles north of where I live, they are facing serious problems with sea-level rise. So the people in that community have to do something, and you know the US hasn’t yet determined to do something -that is whether they would facilitate moving the community and what that would entail. There’s been 10, 15, 20 years of meetings, and they are all over the same thing, and those communities are still there; they are still threatened by the ocean, and time is getting short. So the leadership needs to facilitate those discussions so people can have clear expectations, and we don’t waste the next 30 years trying to figure out what we have to do.

Sometimes, I think here in the US, we have the same conversations year after year without accomplishing a lot. Think-tanks should try and identify some of those issues, identify the players and find the pros and cons to see if there are any alternatives to bring those who might be for or against something to an alternative way of getting something done. In a sense, take the adversary out of the decision-making process.

Lana Ollier is an Associate in the Geopolitics and Security Unit at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. She is currently completing a MSc in Environmental Policy and Regulation at the London School of Economics. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the Freie Universität of Berlin.
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