Climate Change Impacts to Tribes in the Southwestern United States | - August 5, 2013

"For Southwestern tribes, the impacts of climate change threaten local infrastructure, access to culturally significant plant and animal species, food sovereignty, water resources and traditional lifeways."

Climate change threatens to alter the natural environment in a myriad of different ways. For the Southwestern United States, these changes include a trend toward hotter and drier conditions, and importantly, disruptions to major hydrologic systems and processes. In the National Climate Assessment’s1 (NCA) most recent report on the Southwest, “Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest US”, the authors describe the region—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah—as being among the most “climate-challenged” in North America. It’s not surprising then that many climate change impacts are already being felt in the Southwest: rise in average temperature, changes in precipitation and snowpack, and prolonged drought. These phenomena signal both the urgent need to mitigate climate change through a reduction in fossil fuel combustion as well as a clear imperative to prepare for the anticipated impacts and develop sound adaptation strategies. 

For Southwestern tribes, the impacts of climate change threaten local infrastructure, access to culturally significant plant and animal species, food sovereignty, water resources and traditional lifeways. As the authors point out in the NCA report, Southwestern tribes face a host of unique challenges in the face of climate change2. Many of these challenges stem from longstanding inequities such as natural resource distribution (i.e. water supply), habitability of designated tribal lands and political marginalization. Compounding the potential vulnerability of tribes to climate change are the close relationship and cultural ties between tribes and their traditional lands. Altered timing of seasons and early snowmelt, for instance, can have repercussions for tribes that observe traditional harvesting cycles. One final, yet important obstacle that tribes may encounter in the face of climate change is limited climate monitoring data to inform baseline conditions and establish changes over time. 

© Seth Roffman

Although there is limited climate monitoring data presently available, other mechanisms for tracking climate change must be seriously considered—both oral accounts and traditional knowledge are crucial resources that can help to reconstruct historical conditions and inform climate-driven changes. Dr. Margaret Hiza Redsteer of the US Geological Survey is frequently referenced in discussions on climate science and Southwestern tribal lands. For the past decade, Hiza Redsteer has studied climate change-induced migration of sand dunes across the Navajo Nation. In addition to utilizing tools typically associated with a research geologist, like lidar measurements and meteorological monitoring stations, Dr. Hiza Redsteer and her colleagues have also worked to chronicle oral accounts from Navajo elders on the area’s natural history—landscape features, vegetation, wildlife, and land management practices over time. Her work on dune migration highlights the immediate dangers that climate change poses for tribal lands in the way of damaged infrastructure (roads and homes), reduced arable and rangelands, and compromised public health due to dust storms. However, it also serves as a case study on the utility of melding western science with traditional knowledge and oral histories to weave a far more informative narrative of natural history on tribal lands. 

Over the past four years, the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP) at Northern Arizona University has worked with tribes to chronicle and publish accounts of the regional impacts of climate change through profiles and fact sheets. In addition, ITEP produced the 2010 “Tribal Climate Change Efforts in Arizona and New Mexico” report, which highlights tribally led climate change projects in Arizona and New Mexico and also illustrates some of the unique challenges faced by tribes throughout the Southwest. These monumental challenges resulting from global climate change, which include increased frequency of wildfire, increased water scarcity, loss of traditional grazing lands, increased prevalence of invasive species, and changes in precipitation patterns (primarily early snowmelt), are being met with extraordinary ingenuity and tenacity by Southwestern tribes. Nonetheless, climate change poses serious consequences for tribes, who are among the most vulnerable to its impacts. It is in light of this fact that some tribes have started the climate change adaptation planning process (see ITEP Climate Change Program sidebar), which requires assessment of climate impacts and vulnerabilities of tribal natural and cultural resources, social services, infrastructure, and lands, and enables tribal staff to build climate resiliency into their communities by way of strategic planning and cross-sector preparedness.

In its ongoing effort to support tribes as they prepare for climate change impacts, ITEP has scheduled an adaptation planning training during the 2013 Tribal Lands and Environment Forum hosted by the Pueblo of Santa Ana in New Mexico. 

Susan Wotkyns is Climate Change Program manager and Cristina María Gonzales-Maddux is research specialist at Northern Arizona University’s Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals.

1The third National Climate Assessment report is scheduled for completion in early 2014. In January of 2013 the draft report was released for public and expert comment.
2Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States, 2013 - Ch. 17. Unique Challenges Facing Southwestern Tribes.