Interior Department Will Provide Millions To Help Native Americans Adapt To Climate Change

The village of Kivalina, Alaska, which is struggling with coastal erosion. CREDIT: FLICKR/SHOREZONE
The village of Kivalina, Alaska, which is struggling with coastal erosion. CREDIT: FLICKR/SHOREZONE

The federal government is providing $8 million to help native communities in the U.S. plan for the impacts of climate change, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced Tuesday.

Half of the $8 million will go toward tribes’ general efforts to adapt to climate change, and half will go toward efforts focused specifically on coastal issues, such as sea level rise, erosion, and ocean acidification. Coastal issues are of particular concern to native communities in Alaska, where Jewell announced the new wave of funding.

“Sea level rise, coastal erosion, drought and more frequent and severe weather events are impacting Alaska Native villages and American Indian tribal communities across the nation,” Jewell said. “This funding can help tribes prepare and plan for climate-related events and build capacity to address these evolving challenges.”

Last year, the White House’s Climate Assessment singled out Alaskan native communities as some of the most vulnerable in the U.S. to climate change. The report noted that poverty among native groups can limit options for climate adaptation. That poverty makes moving difficult for tribes that need to migrate in order to escape rising seas or other climate impacts.

“Not that long ago the water was far from our village and could not be easily seen from our homes,” Moses Carl, a member of the Yup’ik Eskimo community who lives in Newtok, AK, said in the Climate Assessment. “Today the weather is changing and is slowly taking away our village. Our boardwalks are warped, some of our buildings tilt, the land is sinking and falling away, and the water is close to our homes. The infrastructure that supports our village is compromised and affecting the health and well-being of our community members, especially our children.”

Native communities in other parts of the country are also feeling the impacts of climate change. Native Americans in the Southwest are subject to the same heat and severe droughts as the rest of the region’s residents, but Native Americans in particular have struggled with depleting water resources. Last October, the Environmental Protection Agency stated that 44 tribes in California were at risk of running out of water, and made $43 million available to Southwestern tribes who were weathering the drought. Most of the funding went toward less wealthy tribes who couldn’t afford to update their infrastructure to better deal with the drought and lack of water.

A 2011 report from the National Wildlife Federation found that native tribes are disproportionately affected by climate change. Tribes rely heavily on natural resources for economic, cultural and spiritual needs, the report states, so a loss of these natural resources from drought, wildfires, insect outbreak or other climate-related impacts can affect tribes more than the rest of the population.

“Extreme weather events can be very destructive for Tribes, many of whom are already suffering from lack of resources to begin with,” said Amanda Staudt, a scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, said in 2011. “Heat waves and droughts can exacerbate plant and wildlife mortality, heighten the risk of wildfires and habitat loss, and compromise tribal lands.”