Sustainable Climate Change Adaptation in Indian Country

Posted on: 3/03/2019 - Updated on: 2/28/2020

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Much of the academic literature and policy discussions about sustainable development and climate change adaptation focus on poor and developing nations, yet many tribal communities inside the United States include marginalized peoples and developing nations who face structural barriers to effectively adapt to climate change. There is a need to critically examine diverse climate change risks for indigenous peoples in the United States and the many structural barriers that limit their ability to adapt to climate change. This paper uses a sustainable climate adaptation framework to outline the context and the relationships of power and authority, along with different ways of knowing and meaning, to illustrate the underpinnings of some tribes’ barriers to sustainable climate adaptation. The background of those structural barriers for tribes is traced, and then the case of water rights and management at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming is used to illustrate the interplay of policy, culture, climate, justice, and limits to adaptation. Included is a discussion about how the rulings of the Big Horn general stream adjudication have hindered tribal climate change adaptation by limiting the quantity of tribal reserved water rights, tying those rights to the sole purposes of agriculture, which undermines social and cultural connections to the land and water, and failing to recognizing tribal rights to groundwater. Future climate projections suggest increasing temperatures, and changes in the amount and timing of snowpack, along with receding glaciers, all of which impact water availability downstream. Therefore, building capacity to take control of land and water resources and preparing for climate change and drought at Wind River Reservation is of critical importance.