The Disproportionate Impact of Climate Change on Indigenous Communities

Now more than ever, the topic of climate change has been receiving national attention and is at the forefront of many conversations. In addition to altering environments, it also has a social impact. Extreme weather events have been happening more than ever in recorded history, disrupting both ecosystems and livelihoods for people across the globe. However, marginalized communities, including Indigenous groups, are often the people most affected by devastating storms, flooding, or fires. Recent environmental changes brought on by climate change uniquely impact Indigenous people, especially because of their relationships with the land, ocean, and natural resources. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs articulately states, “Climate change poses threats and dangers to the survival of Indigenous communities worldwide, even though Indigenous peoples contribute the least to greenhouse gas emissions.”

In the words of Survival International, an organization championing tribal peoples around the world, “Indigenous people are on the front line of climate change.” When community worldviews are deeply tied to the environment, what happens when that environment starts to change rapidly? Or when ancestral homelands that communities have lived in for thousands of years start to disappear? A few of the direct consequences of changing environmental conditions include loss of natural resources, restricted access to traditional gathering areas for food and medicine, and forced displacement or relocation. Despite these challenges, many Indigenous communities are adapting traditional lifeways and advocating for change.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is an essential part of the climate conversation. In California, tribes across the state are actively involved in climate change-related planning and adaptation. The Karuk tribe in northern California recently completed a Climate Adaptation Plan that leans on Traditional Ecological Knowledge to protect their culture, according to Bill Tripp, deputy director of the Karuk Natural Resources Department. The tribe is currently implementing indigenous burning practices to reduce the buildup of forest fuels and help prevent high-severity wildfires. Many other tribal communities, including the North Fork Mono and Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, are also engaged in prescribed burning. The Coast Miwok are currently working with the National Park Service at Point Reyes to help protect cultural sites that are disappearing due to erosion and flooding. The organization Climate Science Alliance is supporting the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians to create a climate adaption plan. These projects and partnerships are just a few of the many climate change initiatives currently led by California tribal communities.

Tending Nature S2 E1: Rethinking the Coast with the Ti’at Society showcases the monumental greeting between the Tongva community and the Polynesian Voyaging Society, who sailed a traditional voyaging canoe from Hawai’i to California to attend the Global Climate Action Summit.

These climate-related impacts extend beyond California. Climate change affects Indigenous communities across the globe who live in or are connected to a broad diversity of natural environments. The Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea are the first place in the world to require population relocations specifically due to climate change. However, Papua New Guinea was also the first country to submit a formal climate action plan under the Paris Agreement, just one of many examples of community action and response. In Australia, which is currently facing drought, increased wildfires, rising sea levels, and coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advocating for policy change within the Australian government for climate change planning, which includes actions like reducing carbon emissions and building emergency sea walls.

Aerial view of the Carteret Islands. (Photo Courtesy of NASA)

Many Pacific Islander communities are also building new infrastructure and creating relocation plans. Native Hawaiian people — whose lifeways have long been linked with the ocean — are some of the global leaders in climate change policy, planning, and adaptation. In 2018, the Hawai’i legislature passed two bills pledging to make the state carbon neutral by 2045.

Tending Nature S2 E1: Rethinking the Coast with the Ti’at Society showcases the monumental greeting between the Tongva community and the Polynesian Voyaging Society, who sailed a traditional voyaging canoe from Hawai’i to California to attend the Global Climate Action Summit.

Fishing continues to be an important part of life in Hawai’i, as a source of food and trade. For thousands of years, Native Hawaiians built fish ponds in coastal estuaries to produce millions of pounds of fish as a staple food source. Rising temperatures are now drying up these ancestral ponds. Community members today are moving nets, installing aeration systems, and using flexible harvest strategies in these ponds to adapt to warming ocean temperatures.

Many Native Alaskan tribes, which include Yupik, Inuit, Iñupiat, and Aleut communities, have lived in ancestral villages along the coast for thousands of years, relying on fishing and subsistence hunting of marine mammals such as seals and walrus for survival. Due to rapid sea ice melt, approximately 87% of Native Alaskan villages are experiencing erosion, and many are being forced to move. Hunters have also turned to new methods, including flying drones over ancestral hunting grounds, to track sea ice and walrus populations.

Traditional Native Alaskan seal hunting, circa 1911. (Photo Public Domain)

When changing environmental conditions result in habitat loss, this can offset the balance between humans and important wildlife species. In Papua New Guinea, the crocodile and the cassowary bird — two culturally significant species — are losing habitat due to rising river levels. One of the creation stories from the Iatmul community in Papua New Guinea describes a world engulfed by water. An ancestral crocodile came and scooped part of the submerged land onto its back, lifting it to the surface. Ironically, thousands of years later, this prophetic creation story seems all too real. The cassowary, a critically endangered bird species, is seen as kin, and the use of their bones and feathers in material culture signifies relationships with ancestors.

A canoe prow carved into the shape of a crocodile from the Iatmul Community in Papua New Guinea, collection of the Global Museum, San Francisco State University. (Photo Courtesy of the Global Museum.)

Plants can also serve as indicators of climate change. Even subtle differences in weather patterns can lead to a decrease in biodiversity. Indigenous communities are having to adapt agricultural practices, which often serve as the main food source for a region, and are losing the ability to gather medicinal plants that they rely on for healing. As temperatures continue to increase, some species that live in delicate microclimates, such as cloud forests and rainforest biomes, may no longer be able to survive.

For example, Indigenous communities in the Amazon Basin, which is home to over 80,000 plant species, have long relied on plants for medicinal purposes, many of which are also used in modern pharmaceuticals. Deforestation and land exploitation have made it more difficult to gather these species. Indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin regions of Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador are actively fighting to protect their ancestral territories from oil development and deforestation, frequently resulting in deadly consequences. Community members today often use cultural items such as headdresses and face paint for protests and political action in addition to traditional use.

Headdress worn by Chief Raoni Metuktire, collection of the Global Museum, San Francisco State University. (Photo Courtesy of the Global Museum.)

As these case studies show, environmental changes can have major impacts on Indigenous people. Climate change impacts communities not only from an environmental standpoint but also at a cultural level. There are multiple Indigenous environmental groups, grassroots organizations, and guardians who are working together to combat these issues. As powerfully stated by Raoni Metuktire, Indigenous activist and chief of the Kayapó community in Brazil: “We all breathe this one air, we all drink the same water. We all live on this one planet. We need to protect the Earth. If we don’t, the big winds will come and destroy the forest. Then you will feel the fear that we feel.”

Colorado is Entering a New Environmental Era… Maybe

DENVER – More than a dozen new energy and environment bills are headed to Gov. Jared Polis for a signature. They cover an array of issues from the oversight of electrical generating companies to how companies have to factor climate change into their decision making to the nitty gritty of how oil and gas drilling is governed in the state.

“Given the priority we saw voters make of energy and the environment this past fall they were a really an important part of this past legislative session,” said Kelly Nordini, executive director of Conservation Colorado, an environmental nonprofit.

While momentous, the actual impacts of some policies are yet to be determined. At least two — the oil rule and greenhouse gas reduction goals — will see many details decided in rulemaking by state agencies.

Agencies will release basic ideas on their plans for new regulations. Then they’ll release a draft rule for the public to weigh in on. Some environmental groups plan to put pressure on the state to hold evening sessions, so the public has a better chance to share their concerns.

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The oil and gas law, for example, will require at least a half-dozen rules to be written or rewritten. That means it could take years — not months — to completely spell out details of measures that could have the biggest impact on curbing climate change.

“So the outcome of this session we won’t know fully for multiple years to come,” said Scott Prestidge, communications director for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

Here’s a list of the key energy and environment bills:

Just Transition From Coal-based Electrical Energy Economy. Creates first-of-its-kind Just Transition office, and makes grants available to coal transition workers.

Electric Motor Vehicles Public Utility Services. Allows electric utilities to apply to the Public Utilities Commission to build electric vehicle charging stations.

Protect Public Welfare Oil and Gas Operations. 29-page bill makes health and safety a priority for regulators and launches more than a half dozen rulemakings on things like flowlines, adopting additional methane controls.

Collect Long-Term Climate Change Data. Directs state health officials to collect greenhouse gas emission data annually, and make data available to local governments.

Community Solar Gardens Modernization Act. Allows community solar gardens to expand from 2 to 5 megawatts.

Modify Innovative Motor Vehicle Income Tax Credits. Current law phases out EV tax credits at the end of 2021, new law extends tax credits through 2025.

Electric Vehicle Grant Fund. Allows for more flexibility in how EV Grant Fund administered by the Colorado Energy Office is used.

New Appliance Energy and Water Efficiency Standards. Appliances and plumbing fixtures sold in Colorado will have to meet new energy efficiency and water efficiency standards.

Building Energy Codes. Local governments required to adopt one of three international energy conservation codes when they update building codes.

Climate Action Plan To Reduce Pollution. Directs Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent by 2025, 50 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050.

Housing Authority Properties. Allows public housing authorities to participate in state PACE program, a way to finance clean energy projects.

Front Range Waste Diversion Program. Creates Front Range landfill fee that goes to help communities meet waste diversion goals.

Sunset Public Utilities Commission. 81-page bill gives new charter for state electric utility regulators, including a move in 2020 to calculate the social cost of carbon dioxide emissions in certain utility proceedings.

This story was first published by CPR News on May 13, 2019. You can listen to a radio debrief with environmental reporter Grace Hood here.