As Native peoples we know that climate change is here, and that it is mainly (fossil) fueled. But what of its effects on indigenous health?
According to a recent federal report, The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment, indigenous populations in the U.S. are at increased vulnerability to the impacts of climate change on human health for a myriad of reasons. Take, for example, existing health conditions, like the current rate of asthma in American Indian/Alaska Native children, which is already 30 percent higher than in white children, according to the U.S. Department of Human Services' Office of Minority Health.
The report, an analysis of more than 1,800 published scientific studies by the U.S. Global Change Research, found that the increase in droughts, wind storms, wildfires, erosion and ground-level ozone will increase respiratory diseases like asthma, acute bronchitis and pneumonia. It is just one of many measures taken by the Obama Administration to designate May 23-27 as Extreme Heat Week to bring home the connection between climate change, health and daily life in general.
Climate impacts on traditional foods may cause poor nutrition, increased obesity and diabetes. There is also a serious risk to water and food safety. As the permafrost in Alaska melts, it has led to botulism in traditional foods formerly kept frozen in ice cellars. Moose populations in Minnesota, an important source of protein to many Ojibwe, are declining, while Ojibwe in the Upper Great Lakes region are seeing declines in traditional rice harvests. The Navajo now lack water for farming.
Tribal nations on the West, East and Gulf coasts and Alaska Natives will have to contend with increasing temperatures in ocean and fresh waters, and lower oxygen levels that promote the growth of disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Fish and shellfish will absorb more methylmercury in warmer waters. And ocean acidification, caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide into the ocean, has already lowered shellfish survival in the Northwest.
Diseases passed on by insects, rodents and other host carriers pose another threat to human health as species shift north, while increased rain, flooding and standing water will attract disease-carrying mosquitos, the report said.
Rising sea levels and more extreme weather events will increase erosion and flooding as it did in March 2014, when a storm surge breached the seawall that protects the Quinault Nation’s main town of Taholah in Washington state, flooding its lower portion.
“We have been experiencing an increasingly dangerous situation with sea level rise and intensified storms,” Quinault President Fawn Sharp said in a statement posted to the U.S. climate resilience and toolkit website. “Our people must be protected. We will take whatever measures are necessary to see that they are.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers repaired the seawall only to have an intense storm in January 2015 wash out roads, threaten sewage plants, and cause flooding and landslides. Lessening health risks will take individual, family, community and leadership adaptation, and resilience planning, which Quinault leaders demonstrated by making the difficult decision to design a plan to relocate the town’s lower half.
According to the report, indigenous communities in Alaska are struggling to adapt their hunting and subsistence lifeways to such climate change effects as weather unpredictability, reductions in sea ice thickness, thawing permafrost, coastal erosion, landslides and changes in the ranges of some fish, while threats to housing, roads and pipelines may force the relocation of entire villages.
And although not in this report, it’s worth noting that because tribal nations in the lower 48 are landlocked inside their reservations, federal policies and funding must take into account the possibility that some federally recognized tribes may have to move a community out of harm’s way. It is already happening in Louisiana, but it could also occur anywhere, such as with tribal nations wedged between the Pacific Ocean and Olympic National Park in the Northwest.
The main takeaway from this report is that planning to adapt will build resilience and reduce psychological stressors. An increasing number of tribal nations have conceived and put into practice adaptation plans, and many more are in the process of doing so. The Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP) has been funded to conduct climate adaptation training, in which more than 100 tribes have participated.
Individually, planting fruit and nut trees now to mature in a few years will shade homes and ensure a healthy food supply. Encourage neighbors to do the same with perhaps different varieties for backyard sharing, and start or participate in home, community and schoolyard gardens. The internet has sites that explain for free, how to build a DIY rain catchment system.
The White House is promoting adaptation too. During Extreme Heat Week, federal agencies will take a number of actions to work with community planners and public health officials to enhance community preparedness for extreme heat events.
Here are tools and tips on how to handle extreme heat events to prepare for longer, hotter, and more frequent heat waves as a key strategy for reducing the health toll of extreme heat, which the report said will result in the death of many thousands every summer. The U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit offers an interactive tick tracker and a Lyme disease communications kit, in addition to information about combating infectious diseases. There are other steps you can take—for both yourself and your family—in order to be prepared. Find them all here.