Feds Release the Fourth National Climate Assessment, Highlight Risk and Opportunity for Tribal Economies in the Face of Climate Change

Members of the Oglala Lakota Nation plant climate-resilient tree species on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. (Photo credit: © Alex Basaraba / https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/chapter/15/)

As people across America braved the crowds for holiday deals on Black Friday, energy and natural resource professionals digested the release of the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), a comprehensive report compiled by a dozen different federal agencies regarding the ongoing effects and threats from human-caused climate change. NCA4 warned that without major efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the American economy would suffer impediments to growth and considerable losses. By the end of the century, the report calculated that economic losses could reach hundreds of billions of dollars, not to mention species extinction, land degradation, and irreparable harms to human health.

Coupled with the release a few weeks ago of the Second State of the Carbon Cycle Report (SOCCR2), the two papers represent the nation’s most up-to-date analysis of a growing crisis that now touches every corner of the globe. Tribal concerns were well represented, with each report including an entire chapter on climate risk and adaptation from the indigenous perspective. In each instance, the contributing authors found political, geographic, socio-cultural, legal, and economic barriers to climate adaptation, but emphasized a culture of Native resilience fostered over thousands of years that could aid the indigenous peoples of America through the uncertain climate shifts of the future.

The first key message from the tribal chapter of NCA4 is that climate change puts tribal economies at risk. Existing institutional barriers, like incomplete land and water rights, exacerbate these risks and delay disaster preparedness and planning. The reports list a number of industries vulnerable to climate change, including agriculture, fisheries, tourism, forestry, energy, and recreation. Threats are already coming in the form of wildfires, drought, sea level rise, rising temperatures, and ocean acidification.

Tribes are seeing climate stressors manifest in negative ways on tribal businesses. Droughts pose a significant threat to tribal agricultural enterprises, commercial fishing, and recreation offerings. Warming temperatures, drought, and wildfires are combining to drastically alter the makeup of tribal forests, potentially limiting cultural ceremonies, medicinal plant gathering, and commercial timber harvesting.

Both reports recognize that political constraints, particularly limits on tribal self-determination, only work to intensify Native vulnerability to climate change. This issue is even worse for non-federally recognized tribes and indigenous groups who lack basic treaty protections, access to federal services, and trust lands. However, NCA4 notes that the federal trust relationship to tribes can also hold back tribal efforts to diversify their economies and plan for climate change. Deferred responsibilities to maintain and upgrade reservation infrastructure magnify climate threats. The onerous approval process for energy projects on tribal lands is actively restricting tribal economies and blocking an important source of renewable energy that could help America divest from the fossil fuels that are causing climate change in the first place.

The climate reports are not all doom and gloom for Indian Country. In fact, tribes are in a unique position to deal with the new challenges brought about from climate change. Traditional ecological knowledge derived from thousands of years of observing how environmental stressors affect ecosystem balance is helping tribes prepare for changes in weather and biodiversity through adaptation plans. As the authors in SOCCR2 pointed out, indigenous land use strategies are built around integration with existing systems rather than the Western philosophy of altering existing ecosystems and places to fit production methods.

Historically, indigenous persons migrated to new places when the landscape became inhospitable. Because of trust lands and the modern reservation system, relocation is often not a viable option. Some Alaska Native villages are already having to take this gigantic step- uprooting communities and requiring a new social fabric to be knitted in an unfamiliar place. Putting tribes in the driver’s seat of their own lands is the only way to ensure the development of sustainable, robust economies that contribute to the mitigation of harmful climate change effects. World development has reached a crossroads, and it is now Indian Country’s responsibility to craft the resilient, green economies of the future.

Read the full chapter on Tribes and Indigenous Peoples from the Fourth National Climate Assessment here.

Read the full chapter on Tribal Lands from the Second State of the Carbon Cycle Report here.