Environmental Justice in the American West: An Interview with Kyle Tisdel

Kyle Tisdel is an attorney and the Climate & Energy program director at the Western Environmental Law center in Taos, New Mexico. Representing non-profit organizations, tribal groups, and frontline communities, he and his firm are taking on protecting the climate in the West’s land, air, water, and other resources.

ClimateX sat down with Kyle to discuss the legal and environmental issues unique to the American West, and how policy fits into the larger climate change battle. If you’re interested in Kyle’s work, check out the Western Environmental Law Center.

Mikaela: What legal and environmental issues seem unique or most prominent in the American West?

Kyle: The federal government owns nearly half of all land in the American West, and thus the story of the American West is inextricably linked to our public lands. Pursuant to the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the government is mandated to manage these public lands for the benefit of present and future generations. Inherent to this management is a tension between incompatible goals of natural resource exploitation and ecological conservation. The legal and environmental issues that arise are myriad, including a legacy of battles over endangered species protection, old growth timber harvests, and wilderness designation, to name a few. Though these conservation pursuits are noble in their own right, they can, I think, feel far removed in both distance and relationship to those living in the far more populous eastern U.S.


Mikaela: How are these approaches similar, or different to climate change issues?

Kyle: The cascading impacts that result from the warming of our oceans, land, and atmosphere threaten the very fabric of life on this planet—the single greatest cause of which is the exploitation and combustion of fossil fuels. The Bureau of Land Management is the agency tasked with managing the 700 million acre federal mineral estate, the vast majority of which is in the American West. Fossil fuel extraction on federal lands accounts for over 20% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In short, we cannot address climate change without major reform in the way our public lands and minerals are managed, leased, and developed. The epicenter of this battle is taking place in the American West.

Mikaela: How do legal approaches differ from other approaches to climate-related goals?

Kyle: The mechanisms of climate change have been understood for over 50 years. To date, carbon dioxide concentrations have risen 40% over pre-industrial levels—the highest in at least the last 800,000 years—already causing temperatures to rise over 1°C. Political and policy approaches to address this warming have been predominated by top-down strategies; whether through international negotiations or sweeping domestic measures aimed at reducing emissions. Perhaps most notably, the Paris Agreement.

In the early years of the Trump administration we have learned the potential tenuousness of these gains—having signaled intent for the U.S. to withdraw from Paris while systematically attempting to dismantle virtually all climate measures adopted during the previous administration. All the while, the Trump administration has exhibited an open hostility to basic legal norms and the fundamental science of climate change.

Our legal approach at WELC is aimed at holding the federal government accountable to the realities of climate change through its ground-up decision making on fossil fuels. Through a suite of cases brought under the National Environmental Policy Act and targeting agency decisions at the planning, leasing, and development stages of fossil fuel exploitation, we argue the federal government must not only quantify the full lifecycle of emissions that will result from its decisions, but also provide measures to explain the significance and severity of those emissions. While the Trump administration may deny science for political gain and undermine top-down policy through executive power, NEPA requires federal agencies to insure the scientific integrity of their analysis and to disclose all foreseeable impacts to the public. Failing to account for climate change in the sale and authorization of fossil fuels is the essence of arbitrary and capricious decision making.

Neither the science nor timeline of climate change are encouraging. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a “carbon budget” that coincides with warming thresholds of 2°C and 1.5°C—essentially a measure of the emissions we have left in our account before ecologic bankruptcy. At current emission rates, we will exceed the 1.5°C threshold by 2021, and surpass 2°C by 2036.

By holding the federal government accountable to the math and physics of climate change in every stage of its fossil fuel decision making, from the ground up, it can begin to reform our public institutions while providing the public with a clearer sense of what is at stake. And with hope, it can help to catalyze the type of social, political, and technological transformation that is required.   

Mikaela: How do you collaborate with frontline communities affected by fracking and other fossil fuel industry practices?

Kyle: As a public interest, non-profit law firm, Western Environmental Law Center has the privilege to represent our partners and allies pro bono, working hand-in-hand to leverage our individual and collective capacities in support of aligned long-term visions, goals, and strategies. We foster healthy civic and democratic institutions by defending and building a legal framework to safeguard public lands, wildlife, and communities in the face of a changing climate. We defend public access to public resources and the courts, and enforce transparent and accountable government decision making. The principles of equity, inclusion, and justice underlie WELC’s advocacy and our engagement with and on behalf of communities.

Mikaela: What would you say is the key to successful campaigns?

Kyle: The most successful campaigns are able to weave together legal, community organizing, and public communications strategies into a powerful vision of change, which includes addressing any disparity and inequalities that may exist. At times, this requires WELC to step forward to help articulate these pillars, while also accounting for and helping to elevate the intrinsic value of diverse voices and perspectives. The American West’s frontline communities play an outsized role in determining the fate of ecological systems, while at the same time facing the brunt of ecological degradation and health impacts wrought by fossil fuel exploitation.

For example, in the San Juan Basin, we are counsel to a large coalition of groups working to remedy a tragic legacy of ecologic and human exploitation. This includes our representation of Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, an all-Navajo conservation group who best understand the ecological, cultural, and human toll of fossil fuel exploitation in the region. We are committed to pursuing just outcomes for the Diné people, and for communities throughout the American West, with awareness of the inequities experienced by historically marginalized groups and a recognition of our responsibility to ensure the law is accountable to the rights of all people.