Tribal people face disproportionate impact from climate change

Arctic ice cover plays an important role in maintaining Earth’s temperature—the shiny white ice reflects light and the net heat that the ocean would otherwise absorb, keeping the Northern Hemisphere cool. (Photo from U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management)

Mark Trahant

An immediate threat cited by the report is that many communities will again have to move away from tribal homelands

A new climate report released Friday by the Trump administration predicts significant -- and expensive -- impacts on the planet as a result of climate change. The threats from weather-related catastrophes are already clear: Stronger and more frequent hurricanes, deadly heat waves, and more intense destructive wildfires.

The changing climate is a threat to “Indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and economies, including agriculture, hunting and gathering, fishing, forestry, energy, recreation, and tourism enterprises,” the report says.Though Indigenous peoples "may be affected by climate change in ways that are similar to others in the United States, Indigenous peoples can also be affected uniquely and disproportionately."

Even Native culture is a risk as well as increased health threats from increased asthma to diabetes rates.

The report says: "Many Indigenous peoples have lived in particular areas for hundreds if not thousands of years, and their cultures, spiritual practices, and economies have evolved to be adaptive ... Indigenous knowledge systems differ from those of non-Indigenous peoples who colonized and settled the United States, and they engender distinct knowledge about climate change impacts and strategies for adaptation. Indigenous knowledges, accumulated over generations through direct contact with the environment, broadly refer to Indigenous peoples' systems of observing, monitoring, researching, recording, communicating, and learning and their social adaptive capacity to adjust to or prepare for changes. One of these knowledge systems that is often referred to in the context of climate change is traditional ecological knowledge, which primarily focuses on the relationships between humans, plants, animals, natural phenomena, and the landscape."

“While the lands, waters, and other natural resources of Indigenous peoples hold sacred cultural significance, they also play a principal role in ensuring the viability of these communities’ economies and livelihoods,” the report says. “Tribal trust lands provide habitat for more than 525 species listed under the Endangered Species Act, and more than 13,000 miles of rivers and 997,000 lakes are located on federally recognized tribal lands.”

What’s at most at risk is the traditional subsistence economy. “Such economies rely on local natural resources for personal use (such as food, shelter, fuel, clothing, tools, transportation, and arts and crafts) and for trade, barter, or sharing,” the report says. “Climate change threatens these delicately balanced subsistence networks by, for example, changing the patterns of seasonal timing and availability of culturally important species in traditional hunting, gathering, and fishing areas.”

Climate report identifies more than 800 activities that Indigenous peoples and their partners have undertaken in the last decade. (Fourth National Climate Assessment report)

Chapter 15 of the federal assessment is labeled: “Tribes and Indigenous Peoples.” The report also features a hyperlink to a Bureau of Indian Affairs map and reports about various tribal efforts ranging from case studies to adaptation projects. These are also included in a U.S. Climate Resilience toolkit.

One of the case studies focuses on the Yukon Delta in Alaska.

“The Arctic and Subarctic regions are warming faster than anywhere else on Earth. In recent years, residents of the Yukon Delta have noticed unusual conditions. They’ve seen warmer winters with less snow and more unpredictable weather. Ice on the rivers and sea is thinner than in the past, and break-up of ice happens earlier in the year. With reduced snow cover and ice that can’t support the weight of people traveling over it, hunters are restricted to smaller areas, and they can have difficulty harvesting the game upon which they depend,” the case study reports.

The report asks questions that neither Congress nor the Trump administration has answered. Namely: “Especially among young residents, people wonder, ‘Where will we get the resources we need in the future? Will we need to build roads or change some of our traditions to continue thriving?’”

Where, indeed. Governments only have two choices when it comes to dealing with climate change. First, spend lots of money trying to slow climate change by reducing fossil fuels and other impacts on the environment. That's called mitigation. Or, two, spend lots of money adapting to a changing environment or adaptation. Scratch that. It’s not either, or. The only issue is how much of our resources will be spent on mitigation and how much will be spent on adaptation. Both will cost. And both will be expensive -- and tribes will be spending significant sums with or without help from the federal government.

President Donald J. Trump’s administration continues to downplay climate threats. In a statement Friday, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said the report began in the Obama administration and that it relies too heavily on the worst-case-scenario.

"The report is largely based on the most extreme scenario, which contradicts long-established trends by assuming that, despite strong economic growth that would increase greenhouse gas emissions, there would be limited technology and innovation, and a rapidly expanding population," Walters said in a statement.

She said the next climate assessment, which will be prepared over the next four years, will "provide for a more transparent and data-driven process that includes fuller information on the range of potential scenarios and outcomes."

The National Climate Assessment is required by law. It includes an extensive database of scientific data and links to dozens of federal agencies that are actively involved in climate-related studies, mitigation, or adaptive activities. The report is the fourth comprehensive look by the federal government at climate change and is produced by 13 federal departments and agencies and coordinated by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

While the report is clear about its harsh assessment of the impact of climate change, or global warming, it also says that Indigenous knowledge is essential. The report says: “Indigenous knowledge systems can play a role in advancing understanding of climate change and in developing more comprehensive climate adaptation strategies, in part because they focus on understanding relationships of interdependency and involve multigenerational knowledge of ecosystem phenology (the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena) and ecological shifts. For example, Inupiat residents in Alaska have identified cyclical patterns of coastal erosion, and their understanding of how quickly and in which direction wind and wave energy reaches the coast can help communities prone to flooding. Indigenous adaptation planning, including considerations of issues such as flooding and water rights, benefits from a greater focus on participatory planning in natural resource management.”

But how will tribes implement Indigenous knowledge for either adaptation or mitigation when the cost of doing so is expensive?

The report says “when ecosystems or species’ habitats or migration routes shift due to changes in climate, tribes’ rights to gather, hunt, trap, and fish within recognized areas are constrained by reservation or other legally defined borders, making adaptation more challenging. This is also the case when federal or state regulations fail to prioritize Indigenous peoples’ access to traditional resources. Tribes with non-contiguous reservation lands can be negatively impacted by non-tribal landowners who do not support climate adaptation efforts, and many Indigenous peoples lacking federal recognition often lack the autonomy, funding, and governmental support to address climate change. Because of these and other considerations, decisions regarding natural resource use are often made without appropriate consultation and collaboration with Indigenous peoples, a process that further inhibits local adaptive capacity.”

The report says tribes require additional resources for emergency services.

“As in many communities, Indigenous peoples are experiencing climate change impacts from more frequent and severe weather events, including drought, heat waves, hurricanes, torrential downpours, and flooding,” the report says and it says the federal government does recognize tribal authority to manage disaster recovery. “However, many tribes continue to face hurdles to disaster management and disaster risk reduction planning.”

One such hurdle is the cost. “Federal programs are designed to offer extensive emergency relief after disasters have occurred, but they have only limited funding for hazard mitigation or preparation for long-term environmental change. Most slow-onset disasters, such as erosion, are absent from the federal government’s primary disaster recovery legislation, the Stafford Act, making it particularly challenging to prepare for changing coastlines. Additionally, the low population and rural contexts of many Indigenous communities limit the score they can receive in state and federal cost–benefit analyses, which also severely limits funding for disaster risk reduction.”

An immediate threat from the report is that many communities will again have to move away from tribal homelands. “Many Indigenous peoples are now facing relocation due to climate-related disasters, more frequent coastal and riverine flooding, loss of land due to erosion, permafrost thawing, or compromised livelihoods caused by ecological shifts linked to climate change,” the report says. “Throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, Indigenous peoples were removed in large numbers from their homelands by settler colonial governments, leading, in many cases, to death, diaspora, and socioeconomic struggles. The historical context of forced relocations of Indigenous peoples emphasizes the need for relocation frameworks that protect self-determination.”

Yet relocation is already a serious debate for tribal communities in Alaska, the Southeast, the Pacific Islands, and the Pacific Northwest. Yet, the report says, because many tribal communities are facing slow-onset disasters, the tribes fail to qualify for relocation funds because they have not been declared federal disaster areas. The report says there is no single “comprehensive federal program to assist tribes with relocation effort.”

Put another way: There is no federal plan to pay for tribes to relocate away from climate threats.

“Additionally, there is no clear platform through which communities can connect non-Indigenous scientific information with their own knowledge systems to inform local decision-making processes as to whether adaptation is best achieved through relocation or by protecting in place through capital investments such as flood management infrastructure,” the report says. “Finally, even if relocation is agreed on and logistically feasible, the challenges associated with maintaining community and cultural continuity often undermine the objective of the adaptation strategy, and models for mitigating the impacts of relocation on cultural institutions are rare and difficult to replicate.”

The report relies on extensive documentation of both current and future threats to Indian Country. And the studies “conclude that these impacts on livelihoods and economies will increase under future projections of climate change. However, methods for making these determinations vary, and quantitative or modeling results that are specific to Indigenous peoples in the United States are limited.”

The overall report should open up a debate about what steps the government should take next toward mitigation and adaptation as well as how to pay for climate programs, programs that will become increasingly expensive.

As Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University, told National Public Radio over the weekend, “We've just lived through a summer -- an unprecedented summer of weather extremes - droughts, wildfires, floods, superstorms. We are now seeing the impacts of climate change play out in real time. They're no longer subtle. And this report does a very good job in sort of putting meat on the bone -- in providing the science behind what we can already see with our own two eyes - that dangerous climate change is already beginning to happen.”

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter -@TrahantReports


Comments (2)
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The Navajo Tribal lands (US Four Corners) began to witness the change in climate as early as the 1970's and later talked of what the "weather" was like earlier in listening to my elders at the time in the 1980's.


This recent climate report from the Trump Administration describes all of the possibilities from climate change, including the effects on indigenous communities. These changes will affect indigenous communities’ land quality or even force them to migrate, taking away the generations of indigenous science and traditional ecological knowledge they have associated with these specific areas. Any area they currently occupy holds some significance to these communities whether through culturally significant species that culturally and biologically sustain them or through the indigenous peoples’ practices helping maintain habitat for over 525 endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. With all of the greenhouses gases continuously being emitted, I feel the option of environmental mitigation should be pushed for even if it requires more money upfront; compared to having to spend money on cleanups and adaptation which can create affects most of us will not see, like indigenous communities being forced to migrate.