Indigenous peoples have a long and rich history of adaptation to climate variability1,71,113,114 that is rooted in their dynamic relationships to the natural environment.115 However, the ability of Indigenous peoples to anticipate and respond to climate change is affected by economic, social, political, and legal considerations that severely constrain their abilities to consider and respond to rapid ecological shifts. Despite the many examples of Indigenous peoples undertaking climate vulnerability assessments and adaptation planning (see Figure 15.1 for links to information on current adaptation efforts), as the pace of ecological changes increases with climate change, and sociopolitical obstacles to implementing responses continue to exist, there are challenges and barriers to adaptation.116,117
Incorporating Indigenous Knowledges in Adaptation
Indigenous knowledge systems can play a role in advancing understanding of climate change and in developing more comprehensive climate adaptation strategies,6,7,118 in part because they focus on understanding relationships of interdependency and involve multigenerational knowledge of ecosystem phenology (the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena)6,119,120 and ecological shifts.25,121 For example, Inupiat residents in Alaska have identified cyclical patterns of coastal erosion, and their understanding of how quickly and in which direction wind and wave energy reaches the coast can help communities prone to flooding.122 Indigenous adaptation planning, including considerations of issues such as flooding and water rights, benefits from a greater focus on participatory planning in natural resource management.19,22,123,124,125,126 This planning incorporates local knowledge and values from conception through implementation127,128,129 in ways that ensure the protection of Indigenous knowledges and Indigenous peoples’ rights not to share sensitive information.22 In this way, traditional ways of knowing are contributing to sustainable land management practices under changing environmental conditions.130,131,132,133 For example, the Wabanaki Nations of Maine work closely with local researchers, foresters, and landowners as part of the Cooperative Emerald Ash Borer Project to precisely catalogue and map the decline of the native black ash deciduous trees on which these communities rely for economic, cultural, and spiritual practices. The cooperative leverages Indigenous knowledge of environmental history as it relates to the invasive emerald ash borer beetle.131 Additionally, the Nez Perce Tribe employs Indigenous knowledges as part of an initiative to enhance local salmon populations that have been in decline (Ch. 24: Northwest, KM 2). For more on Indigenous knowledges, see the regional chapters in this assessment.
Limited Access to Traditional Territory and Decision-Making
Historically in North America, Indigenous peoples occupied vast amounts of land and had access to a wide range of natural resources. Under these conditions, high mobility provided a robust response to changing environmental conditions,122 but such options today are limited or nonexistent. Multiple considerations, such as whether tribes have corporate status, federal recognition, reservation lands, off-reservation resource rights, specified water rights, access to Ceded Territories and traditional resources, among many others, affect how Indigenous communities develop and implement climate adaptation efforts.22 Specifically, limitations on the abilities of tribal individuals, communities, businesses, and governing bodies to manage land, participate in policymaking, and access various resources can act as barriers to climate adaptation efforts. Federally recognized tribes have access to a distinct array of resources, programs, and legal authorities, yet they still face numerous limitations in their abilities to implement adaptive strategies. For example, when ecosystems or species’ habitats or migration routes shift due to changes in climate, tribes’ rights to gather, hunt, trap, and fish within recognized areas are constrained by reservation or other legally defined borders, making adaptation more challenging.22,40,48,134 This is also the case when federal or state regulations fail to prioritize Indigenous peoples’ access to traditional resources. Tribes with noncontiguous reservation lands can be negatively impacted by non-tribal landowners who do not support climate adaptation efforts, and many Indigenous peoples lacking federal recognition often lack the autonomy, funding, and governmental support to address climate change.31,48,135,136 Because of these and other considerations, decisions regarding natural resource use are often made without appropriate consultation and collaboration with Indigenous peoples,19 a process that further inhibits local adaptive capacity.
As in many communities, Indigenous peoples are experiencing climate change impacts from more frequent and severe weather events, including drought, heat waves, hurricanes, torrential downpours, and flooding (Ch. 2: Climate).137 In recent years, the Federal Government has made amendments to disaster recovery laws that provide more autonomy to tribes in managing disaster recovery, including the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013, which grants tribes the authority to request a disaster declaration and assistance from the President, instead of relying on state authorities.138 However, many tribes continue to face hurdles to disaster management and disaster risk reduction planning. A study of tribes’ participation in the federally run and subsidized National Flood Insurance Program finds that, as of 2012, only 7% of tribal communities were participating in the program due to lack of information, limited local government capacity, and limited land jurisdiction.139
Risk management and feasible adaptation options are also limited by fundamental issues with federal disaster funding that can be especially prohibitive for tribes. Federal programs are designed to offer extensive emergency relief after disasters have occurred, but they have only limited funding for hazard mitigation or preparation for long-term environmental change.140 Most slow-onset disasters, such as erosion, are absent from the Federal Government’s primary disaster recovery legislation, the Stafford Act, making it particularly challenging to prepare for changing coastlines.141,142 Additionally, the low population and rural contexts of many Indigenous communities limit the score they can receive in state and federal cost–benefit analyses, which also severely limits funding for disaster risk reduction.140,143,144
Displacement and Relocation
Many Indigenous peoples are now facing relocation due to climate-related disasters, more frequent coastal and riverine flooding, loss of land due to erosion, permafrost thawing, or compromised livelihoods caused by ecological shifts linked to climate change.7,122,145,146,147 Throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, Indigenous peoples were removed in large numbers from their homelands by settler colonial governments, leading, in many cases, to death, diaspora, and socioeconomic struggles. The historical context of forced relocations of Indigenous peoples emphasizes the need for relocation frameworks that protect self-determination.120,144,146,148
In the past few years, solutions have emerged to better address the need for community-driven relocations, but even these have proven more complex for tribal communities than originally expected. The state-recognized Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw of Louisiana, in partnership with the Lowlander Center (Figure 15.4), developed a community resettlement plan that was selected in 2016, in conjunction with the State of Louisiana’s application to the National Disaster Resilience Competition, to receive funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Due to restrictions on the funding included within the legislation and the tribe’s lack of federal recognition, the state is managing the resettlement of the entire island community, which limits tribal authority over relocation plans. This arrangement exemplifies one way in which tribes are limited in deploying adaptation strategies when using funds that are not specifically designed to meet the unique needs of tribal communities (Ch. 19: Southeast). Though promising, this solution, to date, is a pilot program through a one-time competitive funding opportunity, and there is no planned ongoing support for other community-led resettlements. Outside of this pilot program, the most promising funding options for facilitating relocations away from changing coastlines are voluntary buyout programs offered by some local, state, and federal entities, but new research suggests that these are particularly ill-suited to tribes because of their focus on individual households, instead of community-wide relocations.153 Central organizing institutions, such as the Denali Commission that is assessing relocation challenges for communities in rural Alaska, may help provide structure for joint state, federal, and tribal partnerships for pursuing safe, timely, and culturally appropriate relocation. More research would be required to properly assess whether these and other solutions would facilitate action toward safe and self-determined futures for these communities.