By Andrea Lang, Policy Analyst
Despite contributing very little to the historical greenhouse gas emissions that have caused climate change, American Indian Tribes face disproportionate and unique problems as the Earth warms. Historic fishing grounds, which tribes rely on both for subsistence and as part of their rich cultures, may be jeopardized. The increasing number and intensity of wildfires caused by warmer temperatures, as well as prolonged periods of drought, may threaten tribal land, resources, and homes. And water, which is a necessary and sometimes sacred resource to many tribes, may become more and more scarce in some areas due to increased drought caused by climate change.
In fact, individual tribes are starting to assess the effects of climate change on their communities and to explore adaptation strategies. For example, in Western Washington, the Swinomish Indian Senate issued a proclamation in 2007 acknowledging the reality of climate change and supporting an initiative to determine local effects and adaptation strategies for the tribe. The first assessment to come out of that initiative, a 2009 technical report examining local impacts from climate change, identified a number of devastating impacts to the tribe. First, it determined that sea level rise poses a risk to 15% of the Swinomish Reservation as a whole, including the entirety of the tribe’s agricultural land, 160 residential structures, and 18 commercial and industrial buildings. In addition, traditionally harvested seashell beds and fisheries are at high risk of permanent inundation. Finally, The threat of increased wildfires pose a high risk to another 1,500 properties on the Swinomish Reservation.
In 2010, the Tribe issued a follow-up report. This Adaptation Action Plan suggested strategies for the Swinomish to adapt to these climate impacts. Recommended strategies included constructing or extending existing dikes to prevent inundation and using fire buffer zones to control the effects of wildfires.
Of course, in looking at adaptation strategies for tribes, it’s important to recognize the history of how tribes have been treated in the United States. Throughout history, tribes have been repeatedly asked, and often forced, to either assimilate or relocate to suit the changing nature of the country. With most tribes’ minimal contribution to climate change, asking them to adapt by changing their way of life yet again presents an environmental justice issue. And while the changes proposed by the Swinomish Tribe seem relatively benign, they are also expensive, and represent only one tribe’s adaptation strategy. As one prominent Indian Law scholar has pointed out, the international dialogue around tribal adaptation has revolved around relocation, which would disrupt tribal cultures that are often deeply tied to a senseof place.
Due to these looming climate impacts and the environmental justice concerns associated with adaptation efforts, conversations regarding tribes and climate change should focus on mitigation rather than adaptation. Advancing renewable energy development and shifting towards a 100% renewable power system is a key part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preventing these effects, which is why I plan to devote my next few blogs to exploring renewable energy development as it relate to tribes. Over the next few weeks, I will explore some of the issues that arise with respect to tribes and renewable energy projects on both federal and tribal land. Next week’s post will explore the potential for and benefits of developing renewable projects on tribal land. Future posts will investigate the obstacles to developing such renewable projects on tribal land, and the issues that come up for tribes with respect to renewable development on federal land.