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Back to 350, Part 2: Confronting Climate Change in Indian Country

[node:summary]Two tribal experts from the National Wildlife Federation discuss what it would take to bring the atmosphere back to 350 ppm of CO2.
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Indian Country Today Media Network contributor Terri Hansen asked a number of tribal environmental experts how we can get back from the dangerous 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide saturation of our atmosphere—considered by most climate scientists to be a dangerous level—to below 350, which is considered acceptable. Last week Winona LaDuke told Indian country that many of the changes must come from within. Here, two tribal liaisons from the National Wildlife Federation weigh in.

RELATED: Climate Change: What Will It Take to Get Back to 350 (ppm)?

In our more than 25 years of collective experience partnering with tribes on conservation issues, we have never faced a more dire and pressing issue than the impact of climate change. The impact of climate change on tribal natural and cultural resources is staggering. We are no strangers to going the full distance to win conservation bouts alongside our tribal partners—we worked for over 20 years to bring wild bison back to tribal lands and finally achieved that by helping to restore bison to the Fort Peck Reservation in March 2012. But climate change is proving to be the truest test of endurance.

In a forthcoming article in the American Indian Law Journal, Professor Mary Christina Wood, faculty leader of the University of the Oregon School of Law Native Environmental Sovereignty Project, suggests that sovereign tribal nations are the linchpin for advancing real solutions to climate change. Professor Wood argues that tribes are “co-tenants” of natural resources under the trust doctrine and that the “Climate crisis represents a realm in which a trust approach is most needed, because the states and federal government treat this as a political issue that they are free, in their discretion, to ignore.”

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As long as we have worked with tribes on conservation issues, we have asserted that tribal sovereignty and the trust obligation are key parameters to protecting wildlife and natural resources. That is why we have committed long hours in the last decade to pushing Congress and federal agencies to create equity in tribal funding for natural resource conservation and climate adaptation. Just recently, after over five years of dedication and hard work by NWF and our tribal partners, the Department of Interior committed nearly $10 million to tribal climate adaptation efforts. This was a program that, as recently as two years ago, committed over $130 million to climate adaptation but did not provide any funds to tribal efforts. For the same reason, we served on the National Landscape Conservation Cooperative National Council to ensure tribes a seat at the table on federal and state efforts to adapt to climate change.

Every day, tribes and tribal citizens are moving the ball forward to turn the tide from fossil fuels to clean energy. They recognize that our elected leaders are refusing to act on the greatest threat to our society that we have ever seen. So individuals and communities are doing what their leaders refuse to do, they are transitioning their communities away from fossil fuels and stopping new coal mining and port projects through community organizing. For example, our partner and friend Henry Red Cloud from Pine Ridge has built and installed solar air heaters in reservation homes for over a decade while training tribal members to do the same. He has travelled all over Indian Country helping others to lessen their dependence on fossil fuels. Another close partner of NWF is ecoCheyenne, a grassroots organization on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation that formed to fight the development of the largest proposed coal mine in the country which Arch Coal is proposing to develop on the Tribe’s eastern border. Together we are winning that fight. Every day, tribal citizens are drawing the line and saying no. No more coal mining. No more oil drilling. No more digging up the earth so that corporations can profit off of exploiting our land, our water and our climate. We are stopping them one project at a time and collectively, we are making a difference.

What will it take to get back to 350? It will take a collective effort, tribal nations working with state and the federal governments, nations working with nations around the world. But, we believe that tribes, who live on the front lines of climate change, can be the true leaders, can be the ones that bring their traditional knowledge and long-term experience with the natural world, to make the changes necessary for this planet.

When it comes to climate change, it is easy to see the glass as half empty. What world will our children, our nieces and nephews live in 30 years from now? That is a hard question to fathom. Yet we work every day with our tribal partners to envision a new future. That new future should be embedded in tribal traditional historical and cultural connections with the land. Tribes have adapted to changing environments for millennia, learning to shift how they live on a changing planet while maintaining their cultures. That experience and knowledge should be a guidepost for all of us as we look to the future. The National Wildlife Federation will endure in its tribal partnerships to protect wildlife and habitat from climate change for Native Americans, and all Americans, so that future generations have the opportunity to interact with and connect to the natural world.

Garrit Voggesser is the national director and Alexis Bonogofsky is the senior manager for the National Wildlife Federation’s Tribal Partnerships Program. NWF’s Tribal Program has the mission to partner with sovereign tribal nations to protect wildlife for future generations.