The impact of human disregard for nature as a cohesive force that sustains
the rest of all life is serious indeed. No one wants to play the fool
sounding false alarms, but humankind must train itself to pay attention to
these matters and to the most serious threat to life as we have known it on
the Earth: global warming resulting from human civilization's colossal
burning of fossil fuels.
From the rapid depletion of plant and animal species to the pollution of
air and water with chemicals, there is much to worry about in humanity's
careless use and neglect of the environment. But the issue of global
warming and its impact on climate change is beyond serious. This is one
that cannot wait for politicians in denial and requires substantial
attention and response. Global warming and its effects represent a truly
catastrophic threat to all human societies and to all animal and plant
The Earth is warming at an alarming rate. The average global temperature
has risen by 0.6 degrees Celsius in one century. The hottest 15 years on
record have all been since 1980. This intense change in temperature is
affecting directly the intensity of climactic forces whose long-term
patterns we now depend upon. Drought, hurricanes, flooding - all now become
more intense or, to use the common term, "super-sized." The rise in
temperature is the Northern Hemisphere's most intense rise in 1,000 years.
This problem is pointed out by Swiss Re, one of several major insurance
companies internationally that estimate losses from environmental disasters
have risen exponentially over the past 30 years, with more expected.
While some commentators have fun ridiculing scientists and their
substantial studies, the vast consensus of the scientific community sounds
a consistent alarm and a second, broad consensus of industrialized and
non-industrialized countries worldwide is moving to address the problem.
Only the United States, which produces the largest amount of greenhouse
gases, stands resolutely against taking any significant action. Instead,
from the American government on down through the myriad talking heads who
present a contrary view on radio and television, the dictum is to question
and even manipulate the science so that the issue gets reduced from its
truly overwhelming scale. Global warming is often pigeonholed as a theory
being exaggerated that forever needs further study.
Except the ice caps are melting.
Subarctic Native communities are scandalized by the loss of habitat and the
melting of permafrost. As the ice caps melt, the voluminous currents in the
oceans (Gulf Stream, North Atlantic current, etc.), veritable river systems
that regulate climactic patterns, noticeably change. As a few scientists
paid through oil and coal industry think-tanks create a much-vaunted
"counter opinion," island countries in the Pacific are being lost to the
Persistent drought is squeezing the American Plains, drying out rivers and
wells. The Missouri River basin, with six reservoirs, is at record lows.
One reservation, Cheyenne River in South Dakota, reports it will be
completely dry by August, leaving 14,000 residents scrambling for water.
This is an area, along with a swath of the South, already pinpointed by
scientific study as a persistent impact area for heat waves.
Granted, weather is variable and floods and droughts are historically
commonplace. However, signs are emerging everywhere that some very serious
climate changes are taking place. Most world leaders, including America's
staunchest ally, Great Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, are convinced
by the vast majority of global scientists' consensus opinion: that the
unchecked burning of fossil fuels is producing the global warming trend
which is seriously affecting climate as we know it.
The evidence in Europe, as in all directly-affected regions, is hard to
dismiss. Summer heat waves, once periodic and rare, are now nearly an
annual event. Since 1977, "an exceptionally strong, unprecedented warming"
is reported by the researchers. Temperatures have risen on average about
0.36 degrees per decade. The intense heat killed some 19,000 people last
year, mostly the elderly.
A British study that analyzed the temperature history of Europe from 1500
to the present found last summer to be the hottest on the European
continent in at least five centuries. The study's figures to 1750 are based
on measures of tree rings and soil cores. Since 1750, instrumented readings
have been available throughout Europe. This is partly why Blair told
President George Bush in late January: "If America wants the rest of the
world to be part of the agenda it has set, it must be part of their agenda,
While the American government fiddles as the Earth heats up, adding to U.S.
isolation in the world, more rational forces within the country have taken
leadership of this issue. Many states, roughly 150 local governments and
some corporations are increasingly convinced of the need for action. A
couple of tribes are also leading in endorsing and adopting new wind and
solar approaches that reduce carbon-dioxide emissions. And recently, The
Pew Center on Global Climate Change helped to coalesce Shell, Alcoa, DuPont
and American Electric Power, among others, to contribute ideas to new
proposed legislation in the U.S. Senate. Promoting fuel efficiency to
reduce U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil is also an argument gaining
Many planners already assert that "humanity actually has the hardware in
hand to halt the rise in heat-trapping greenhouse gases it pumps into the
atmosphere." ("Stabilizing the Global 'Greenhouse' May Not Be So Hard,"
Peter N. Spotts, Christian Science Monitor.) Harmful emissions can be
halved within 50 years without harming the economy, as critics of the
global warming argument contend would happen.
Among others, a Princeton University study published in the journal Science
recommends a "widespread use of a portfolio of at least 15 approaches -
from energy efficiency, solar energy, and wind power to nuclear energy and
the preservation or enhancement of "natural" sinks for carbon dioxide such
as rain forests, or the conservation tillage techniques on farms
worldwide." (Of these, nuclear power holds the quagmire of what to do with
its own contamination.) As a result of these kinds of approaches, cutting
CO2 emissions significantly over the next 50 years is now Britain's goal,
while the European Union and Russia have also agreed to reduce emissions as
Some tribes are offering solutions by entering into what guest columnist
Winona LaDuke calls "the next energy economy." The Hopi and Navajo have
greatly expanded into solar energy models in the past decade; the Rosebud
Sioux are seriously moving along a major initiative in wind power, while
the American Indian intelligentsia generally has put up serious voices
within the environmental movement. Some of our commentators in this edition
- John Mohawk, Tom Goldtooth, Dean Suagee and Winona LaDuke - address these
issues in our Perspectives pages. Additionally, columnist Suzan Shown Harjo
is a prominent researcher and advocate on sacred lands, which often are
environmentally impacted by, and must confront, industrial society.
American Indian tribal leaders in government, business and education, and
institutions such as the National Congress of American Indians and United
South and Eastern Tribes, have a great opportunity to take up various
aspects of this crucial issue. In the U.S. Senate, John McCain, R-Ariz.,
and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., are teamed up on a bill that begins to force
action. The McCain-Lieberman bill would establish a domestic "cap and
trade" system to control greenhouse gas emissions. These Indian political
organizations and, indeed, all tribes should assist these senators with
active support for their efforts. This is a wonderful opportunity to state
and restate in the national discourse the American Indian tribal
traditional values and contemporary sensibilities regarding the collective
responsibilities humans share for the Earth.
Educationally, as NASA and the National Geographic Society pursue strong
programs on climatic change of recent years, science and Native Studies
programs should be encouraged to find ways and methodologies to exhibit,
document, illustrate and teach the Native reflection of these concerns.
Finally, the tribes, whenever possible, should project the principle of
Earth systems enhancement in all their endeavors, from the formulation of
tribal building codes that are sun-oriented to the building of support
mechanisms in their internal and external structures for applying this
fundamental philosophy. Again, this can make good economic sense, is good
planning and is a great message with which to reach the American public.
Concern for Mother Earth and attention to how human beings are harming
natural ecologies are responsibilities Native people hold dear. As always,
though, we can also be part of the problem if we don't lead in providing
and demanding solutions.