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Taking action now: the Tribal Climate Change Project

Throughout the Pacific Northwest, tribes are taking action to fight climate change and are leading in the design and implementation of climate change adaptation and mitigation plans.

Whether urban or rural, those most at-risk of suffering the devastating effects of climate change are members of sovereign nations: American Indians, Alaska Natives, and First Nations. For some, climate change is no longer a distant threat, but a dangerous force that places their communities and their resources at immediate risk. At the front lines of climate change, indigenous peoples are, yet again, forced to fight to protect their land, homes, and culture.

Across the region, we see examples of how sea level rise, extreme wildfires, and drought driven by climate change are affecting indigenous people and their homelands. For example, in the fall of 2006, a sea wall built with the intent of keeping the Inupiaq village in Kivalina, Alaska from eroding into the sea, was breached. Sarah Krakoff, the Raphael J. Moses Professor of Law at the University of Colorado supports that “due to climate change, Alaska Native communities are facing a cultural loss as profound as that suffered by the Plains tribes when they were confined to reservations and forced to abandon the practices that gave their lives meaning.” Beyond natural disasters, indigenous sovereignty, culture, health, economy, and food security are all vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

In the United States, the federal government has a trust responsibility to engage in a government-to-government relationship with federally-recognized tribes to protect tribal lands, resources, and people.

As indigenous communities work to address climate change, a strong government-to-government relationship with federal agencies is critical to managing landscapes, ecosystems and water resources that include both ceded and ancestral lands. To build an understanding of the federal government trust responsibility in the context of climate change and to create opportunities for collaboration and coordination on tribal climate change projects, resources, and general efforts, the Tribal Climate Change Project established the PNW Tribal Climate Change Network and the Tribal Climate Change Guide.

At its core, the Tribal Climate Change Project “focuses on understanding needs and opportunities for tribes in addressing climate change, examining the government-to-government relationship in a climate context and exploring the role of traditional knowledge in climate change studies, assessments and plans.”

Participants in the Network (tribes, federal agencies, and other entities) meet each month to address climate change, including the critical need to challenge, adapt, and mitigate its effects. A product of the Network’s efforts is their resource database, the Tribal Climate Change Guide. The Guide is a powerful tool for tribes and other entities with tribal climate change projects, providing “up-to-date information on grants, programs and plans that may assist tribes in addressing climate change through a broad range of sectors.”  Regular and timely communication to tribes about funding opportunities and resources remains a challenge. The Guide brings these resources together for tribes in one place, facilitating tribal agency and access to choose and apply for various types of funding.

With funding, tribes are taking action to fight climate change and lead the design and implementation of climate change adaptation and mitigation plans. Tribes’ climate change adaptation and mitigation plans are also compiled as resources for tribes and other entities who wish to create their own.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, among other tribes, continues to be at forefront of climate change adaptation and mitigation. In 2007, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community passed a proclamation on the Swinomish Climate Change Initiative and in 2010 published their Swinomish Climate Adaptation Action Plan. At Ecotrust, we are actively supporting the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in identifying, characterizing, and strategically navigating options for achieving their vision of landscape-level forest management. The forest management plan is part of the Swinomish Climate Change Adaptation Action plan to create an enduring and climate-resilient community. At the heart of these plans is the recognition and integration of traditional ecological knowledge as a critical foundation for appropriate and successful land stewardship.

We must acknowledge, respect, and value tribes’ traditional ecological knowledges. We must support tribes in their efforts and recognize tribes as the first and rightful stewards of the land we are guests on.

Each year the Tribal Climate Change Project hosts the Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples lecture at the University of Oregon. See the keynotes from this year’s event and join the PNW Climate Change Network email list, by contacting Kathy Lynn at . The Network meets the third Wednesday of each month.