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Published on November 26th, 2018 | by Carolyn Fortuna

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Climate Change Threatens Traditions Of Indigenous People — National Climate Assessment

November 26th, 2018 by  


When Laureli Ivanoff was pregnant, she envisioned teaching her child how to read the wind, the current, and movement of the ice, as she had learned from her own family members. She is an Inupiat, a northern indigenous people with communities from Alaska to Greenland. Autumn in her Inupiat community is known as a month of new ice and readying for seal hunting. When Ivanoff’s grandfather was young, ice would anchor to the shore at this time of year. But not in 2018, as the ground is still soft. In fact, the ground didn’t fully harden last year until around March, and it melted soon after.

Recently, the New York Times published a first person narrative by Ivanoff, an Inupiat writer and chronicler of her people’s cultural hunt of large bearded seals they call “ugruk.” She calls the Inuqtaq traditional hunting of ugruk “a life-giving act of intentional decolonization, our way of keeping alive a simple custom that’s become sacred.” But an alarming change in temperature of the Bering Sea and other oceans on the planet has halted many such hunts and traditional bonding activities. Warming oceans call into question the ability for many indigenous people to continue the practices that ground them in cultural values and ways of being. Her child may never learn to watch the currents, to gauge the winds, or to study ice movement so a boat and its passengers aren’t trapped by ever-moving floes.

Without those opportunities, Ivanoff questions whether her child will be able to forge connections to the Inupiat who hunted the waters of the Norton Sound for millennia. And her family’s experience is not unique. The Fourth National Climate Assessment decries the effects that climate change is having on indigenous people, their economies, and cultures.

indigenous people

indigenous peopleNational Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries scientists conducted their annual trawl survey of the southern Bering Sea ecosystem in August, 2018. They found unprecedented conditions of warm ocean temperatures and noteworthy changes in the cod and pollock numbers and conditions. That data merited immediate emergency funding so the survey crew could move north from St. Matthew Island to Diomede Island to investigate.

They determined that there was a significant lack of the colder ocean waters that separate the northern and southern Bering Sea marine ecosystems.

This cold-water pool, or “curtain,” is created when the sea ice melts during the summer, making a natural barrier in the Bering Sea. The annual thermal curtain typically keeps cold-water fish and creatures in the north of the barrier, like small cod and the mammals that eat them. Larger Pacific cod and pollock and creatures like sea lions typically remain in the south.

Without the cold-water division, these southern fish appear to be moving farther and farther north. Encroaching cod and pollock, species not previously seen in large numbers by indigenous hunters and fishers are evidence of a rapidly changing ocean, as are auklets, puffins, and other seabirds that are dying and washing up on Alaskan shores in disturbing numbers.

National Climate Assessment

The Fourth National Climate Assessment: Threats to the Economy, Infrastructure, and Health

The Global Change Research Act of 1990 mandates that the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) deliver a report to Congress and the President no less than every four years that:

  1. integrates, evaluates, and interprets the findings of the Program;
  2. analyzes the effects of global change on the natural environment, agriculture, energy production and use, land and water resources, transportation, human health and welfare, human social systems, and biological diversity; and
  3. analyzes current trends in global change, both human-induced and natural, and projects major trends for the subsequent 25 to 100 years.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, a 1,500-page report that was released the day after Thanksgiving, 2018, examines the climate and economic impacts US residents could expect if drastic action is not taken to address climate change. The report states explicitly that climate change is part of our world today, and the evidence is outside our windows — worsening flooding, wildfire seasons, droughts, and heatwaves. Outlining how climate change risks to the US economy, infrastructure, health and well-being, and ecosystems, the report calls for priority action to lower heat-trapping emissions.

As a result of the findings in the Fourth National Climate Assessment, the Union of Concerned Scientists has outlined major challenges to our society and economy:

  • Decreases and variability in water availability in some parts of the country;
  • Increases in extreme precipitation in some parts of the country, causing flooding and infrastructure damage;
  • Accelerating sea level rise, putting at risk homes, infrastructure and other valuable assets in the coastal floodplain;
  • By the middle of the century, the annual area burned in the US could increase 2-6 times from the present, depending on the geographic area, ecosystem and local climate;
  • Worsening health impacts including increased mortality and morbidity;
  • Growing risks of compound extreme events—where more than one hazard occurs at the same time in the same place— and cascading infrastructure failures which can multiply risks to people, the environment, and the economy;
  • Pressures on the energy system; and,
  • Disproportionate risks to low-income communities, tribal communities, and communities of color who may be more exposed to climate impacts and may have fewer resources to cope with them.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment: Tribes and Indigenous People

indigenous people

Source: Chapter 15, The Fourth National Climate Assessment

While the lands, waters, and other natural resources of Indigenous peoples hold sacred cultural significance, they also play a principal role in ensuring the viability of these communities’ economies and livelihoods, according to chapter 15 of The Fourth National Climate Assessment. Tribal trust lands provide habitat for more than 525 species listed under the Endangered Species Act, and more than 13,000 miles of rivers and 997,000 lakes are located on federally recognized tribal lands.

Many Indigenous peoples are reliant on natural resources for their economic, cultural, and physical well-being and are often uniquely affected by climate change. The report states that “the impacts of climate change on water, land, coastal areas, and other natural resources, as well as infrastructure and related services, are expected to increasingly disrupt Indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and economies, including agriculture and agroforestry, fishing, recreation, and tourism. Adverse impacts on subsistence activities have already been observed.”

“As climate changes continue, adverse impacts on culturally significant species and resources are expected to result in negative physical and mental health effects. Throughout the US, climate-related impacts are causing some Indigenous peoples to consider or actively pursue community relocation as an adaptation strategy, presenting challenges associated with maintaining cultural and community continuity. While economic, political, and infrastructure limitations may affect these communities’ ability to adapt, tightly knit social and cultural networks present opportunities to build community capacity and increase resilience. Many Indigenous peoples are taking steps to adapt to climate change impacts structured around self-determination and traditional knowledge.” Some indigenous people are pursuing mitigation actions through development of renewable energy on tribal lands.

Subsistence Livelihoods Now at Risk Due to Effects of Climate Change

On the coastal plains and sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia, the Gullah Geechee people, descendants of slaves who once worked on rice plantations there, are rethinking their relationship with coastal areas and their need to protect them through climate action. Many Gullah Geechee continue agrarian-era practices of farming and fishing. But in recent decades, rising seas and storm waves have flooded cropland and damaged oyster fisheries.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment discusses how climate change threatens delicately balanced subsistence networks by, for example, changing the patterns of seasonal timing and availability of culturally important species in traditional hunting, gathering, and fishing areas. The report indicates that agriculture is already being adversely affected by changing patterns of flooding, drought, dust storms, and rising temperatures, with future projections varying by region but indicating increased soil erosion and irrigation water demand and decreased crop quality.

Queen Quet Marquetta Goodwine, elected leader of the Gullah Geechee, says coastal marshland that helps protect against storms and flooding is being destroyed. As an advocate, she seeks to ensure that those who travel to their coastline “want to ensure their quality of life.” Climate problems, she says, are compounded by tourism-driven development. “There’s a proverb in Gullah Geechee that says, ‘The water bring we and the water going to take we back.’ Now it’s the water that’s bringing us back to each other as human beings, that is, the water of the sea-level rise, the hurricanes bringing water on land, and so we now all have to gather around together and see if we can’t literally change this tide together.”

Goodwine has traveled to Washington, D.C. to ensure that the rights of her people are not “in jeopardy.” She hopes to return to the United Nations to represent her people and to protect the “rights of minorities and indigenous people so they will not be overlooked.”

Final Thoughts

The climate impact stories of Ivanoff and Goodwine are but two of the many that represent the daily lives of indigenous people. “The indigenous experience is one of loss,” Ivanoff says. “My community, like others around the world, has lost a lot: Language. Ceremonies. Dances. Songs. Ways of connecting to the earth, and to one another. We lost ways of nourishing ourselves.”

The Fourth National Climate Assessment says infrastructure and linked systems that support Indigenous economies and livelihoods are at risk from more frequent or intense heavy downpours, floods, heat waves, wildfires, and droughts, as well as higher sea levels and storm surges. The report confirms that the number of health risks are higher among Indigenous populations, due in part to historic and contemporary social, political, and economic factors that can affect conditions of daily life and limit resources and opportunities for leading a healthy life.

“Though the earth changes, it is still giving. Providing. Nurturing,” Ivanoff muses. “I hope the rest of the world quickly adapts and also respects the earth — as we have for millenniums and will continue to do.”


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About the Author

Carolyn Fortuna, Ph.D. is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. She's won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. She’s molds scholarship into digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+



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