Geologist: Southwestern tribes more vulnerable to effects of climate change

Ability to grow corn and other crops and decline in availability of medicinal plants all related to climate change

Increased severity of wildfires, climate-related stresses to rangeland and the shifting of sand dunes that hampers transportation on roadways are signs of climate-related changes. According to a report recently issued for the 2013 National Climate Assessment, the decreased ability to grow corn and other crops and the decline in the accessibility to medicinal plants are also partly related to the climate changes that are affecting Native American communities across the Southwest.

Margaret Hiza Redsteer, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, recently reviewed the situation at the Museum of Northern Arizona. According to Redsteer, Southwestern tribes are more vulnerable to climate change than most other groups because the problem affects endangered cultural practices, water rights, socio-economic conditions and political marginalization. Conventional climate change adaptation planning and related policies could result in unintended consequences or conflicts with Native American governments, or could prove inadequate if tribal interests and concerns are not considered in the decision making process.

As sovereign governments, tribal nations have the ability to address the effect of climate change on their lands, resources and traditional practices.

"It is important that stakeholders and decision makers are aware of the distinct historical, legal and economic contexts of the vulnerability and adaptive capacity of Southwestern Native American communities," Redsteer said. "Climate change can be a confusing issue because sometimes if the weather gets a little colder, or the snow fall increases, it is easy to believe things are returning to normal and that climate change is no longer a matter of concern."

Redsteer explained the difference between climate change and a change in the weather. "Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you actually get," she said.

Climate change must be measured and considered over extended periods of time. Since the second half of the l9th century, temperatures have increased the world over. Natural events can cause global warming. A slight shift in the position of the sun or heat produced by erupting volcanoes can cause natural fluctuations. However, human activity has intensified global warming.

Following the Industrial Revolution that began around 1750, human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels for energy, have contributed significantly to global warming. Scientists project the contributions to be even more pronounced in the coming decades and they have become a major concern for scientists studying the situation around the globe.

The National Climate Assessment, conducted every four years, collects, integrates, and assesses observations and research from climate scientists around the nation. It includes analysis of impacts on seven selected sectors: human health, water, energy, transportation, agriculture, forests, ecosystems and biodiversity. The assessment describes what is happening and what it could mean for peoples' lives, livelihoods, and future so decision makers and stakeholders can make informed decisions for their communities.

The National Climate Assessment blends the contributions of 120 experts in climate science, economics, ecology, engineering, geography, hydrology, planning, resource management, and other disciplines. The assessment is intended to provide the most comprehensive and understandable analysis about climate for the people in the region.

Redsteer served as the coordinating lead author on the chapter that covers the unique challenges facing Southwestern tribes.

"Native American communities are socially, culturally, and politically unique and must be involved in the debates and decisions related to climate change to avoid unintended consequences or conflicts between local governments and agencies," she said. "This the first time that Native American activities will be formally presented in the National Climate Assessment."

In the Southwest region there are 182 federally recognized tribes. The region includes the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and communities along the U. S. - Mexico border. While it might appear that there are some stark differences between their situations and locations, Redsteer said the tribes have many things in common and will all benefit by working together with their neighboring communities.

"Native Americans also have much knowledge to contribute to the world-wide climate change examination that is going on today. They are currently engaged in many interesting and beneficial programs designed to reduce global warming," she added.

The Jemez Pueblo, for example, has started constructing a utility-scale solar project in New Mexico. The Gila River Indian Community, Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation and the Yavapai-Apache Nation have mitigation plans to manage climate changes.

Redsteer's presentation was part of the museum's Future of the Colorado Plateau lecture series. Redsteer may be contacted at mhiza@usgs.gov

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