FACING THE STORM : Indian Tribes, Climate-Induced Weather Extremes, and the Future for Indian Country
As sovereign nations, Indian Tribes consistently strive to fully exercise their right of self-determination and to maintain their cultural identity, often in the face of the severe economic, societal, and environmental challenges confronting them. Their sovereignty, cultures, and ways of life are profoundly tested in these times by the added challenge of climate change. Tribes are disproportionately impacted by rapidly changing climates, manifested in ecological shifts and extreme weather events, as compared to the general population, due to the often marginal nature and/or location of many Tribal lands. The high dependence of Tribes upon their lands and natural resources to sustain their economic, cultural, and spiritual practices, the relatively poor state of their infrastructure, and the great need for financial and technical resources to recover from such events all contribute to the disproportionate impact on Tribes. Nevertheless, Indian Tribes have significant strengths and resiliency to meet these challenges. This report provides a basis for Tribes to consider how they may be affected by changes in climate and weather extremes and steps they can take to proactively address these impacts.
Climate change contributes to weather extremes. These extremes include more severe drought and heatwaves, more intense wildfires, and heavier rainfall and snowfall events. This intensification will be the most tangible experience of climate change for many people. Such extreme events are showing noticeable trends across the United States and promise to become more severe, especially if climate change continues unabated. Extreme weather events are destructive and the recovery costs are great, which will further burden Indian Tribes more than others due to their relative lack of infrastructure, capacity, and financial support to address them.
Tribal communities are particularly vulnerable to increasing weather and climate extremes. Indian Tribes often have a close connection to the land for economic development, sustenance, and for maintenance of cultural traditions, so changes to natural systems impact them more directly than the general population. In addition, high rates of poverty and unemployment on reservations mean that Tribes have limited resources to help their populations deal with weather and climate extremes, much less to adapt to a changing climate over the long term. Finally, because Tribes are restricted by reservation boundaries, their attachment to the land, and off-reservation treaty rights, moving to new areas to accommodate climate shifts is not a viable option.
Multiple climate-related threats can further challenge Tribal resiliency. Climate and weather extremes can interact to cause more severe impacts for communities and nature. The combination of extreme heat and drought can increase plant and wildlife mortality, cause electricity shortages, and heighten the risk of wildfires. These climate and weather extremes often occur in the context of other problems facing Tribes, from other sources of environmental degradation to limited economic resources.
Tribes can prepare for future climate change if they have adequate resources to do so. Prompt and decisive action is needed to secure resources to address the impacts of climate change and to implement programs that help prepare Tribes, federal and state governments, and agencies, and local communities to adapt to changes in climate. Indian Tribes have an opportunity to build on their close connection to the land, traditions of sustainability, and resilience to navigate a way forward through the changes of the coming decades.