The phenomenon of global climate change has made it clear that we need to
achieve a fundamental change from a global economic order powered by fossil
fuels to one powered by the sun. We need to make this change for many
reasons, one of which is the responsibility we have to future generations.
Unless we start this change soon, by the time the seventh generation
arrives, the biological communities in many parts of the world - the web of
life - will bear little resemblance to the world as we know it today.
(Editor's note: A longer version of this column by Dean B. Suagee first ran
in the Fall/Winter 1999 special edition of Native Americas, the quarterly
policy journal of hemispheric indigenous issues published by First Nations
Development Institute. The special edition focused on climate change and
Native lands, and was partly funded by NASA.)
Making this change happen will be inconvenient for those of us who are
accustomed to the comforts we derive from fossil fuels. But in some ways
the change need not cause us significant discomfort. One set of solutions
that would generally improve the quality of our lives is to make widespread
use of solar design principles to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels
for heating and cooling buildings. Buildings account for more than
one-third of the energy consumption in this country. Solar design
significantly reduces fossil fuel consumption, saving money over the long
term and often over the short term as well. Yet less than one-tenth of 1
percent of the new homes built in this country use solar design principles.
The marketplace simply is not moving us toward the widespread use of solar
power. At the rate we are going, we will never get there.
To make this change happen sooner rather than later, we must use the
law-making powers of our legislative bodies. We also need to use the
policy-making powers of the executive branches of our governments. The
single most critical need in bringing about this part of the change to a
post-fossil fuel economy is political will, which the leaders of Indian
tribal governments can help meet.
There are two kinds of tools that governments can use to encourage or
require the use of solar energy (and energy efficiency) in new
buildings-building codes and land-use ordinances. While other tools (tax
incentives and measures to compensate for the subsidies that are entrenched
in energy marketplaces) are available to governments, building codes and
land-use codes are much more direct.
The most basic governmental policy tool for making new construction more
energy efficient is a building code. In 1983 the Council of American
Building Officials published the first version of the Model Energy Code
(MEC), a model developed for incorporation into state "and local building
codes. The MEC has been updated periodically since then and has served as
the basis for. the energy conservation provisions of building codes adopted
by about half the states. Some states have taken a different approach and
have developed their own energy codes. In 1992 the code received the
endorsement of the federal government in the Energy Policy Act of 1992. The
act requires states to review their residential building codes and
determine whether to revise them to incorporate the MEC. It also requires
compliance with the code for any new home that is financed with a federally
insured or guaranteed mortgage.
Although the Energy Policy Act includes several sections authorizing grants
to tribes for energy projects, the sections dealing with the MEC do not
mention tribal governments. Apparently the congressional staff that worked
on that part of the bill did not take into consideration the fact that
tribal governments, rather than states, have the authority to enact
building codes for trust lands within Indian reservations. Tribal
governments have the power to avoid this unintended consequence. Tribes do
not need the federal government's permission or encouragement to work the
MEC into tribal building codes, or to enact codes that go beyond the
minimal requirements of the MEC. But the tribes could use some help from
the federal government.
Tribal leaders, though, should be forcing the issue, without waiting for
HUD and DOE. Global climate change is fast upon us, and solar homes must be
part of the solution, and soon. Tribal leaders have the opportunity to help
lead this country and the world to a solar future, one of the few solutions
that offer a prayer for dealing with global climate change. Tribal leaders
who seize this opportunity will help to improve the quality of life in
Indian country today - and for the seventh generation to come.