Jonathan Overpeck, lead author of the 800-page Southwest Climate Assessment, addresses delegates at the Southwest Climate Summit in Tucson, Arizona

Southwest Tribes Struggle With Climate Change Fallout

Lee Allen
6/14/12

If you like scary, suspense-filled stories and will get the chance to read only one book this fall … may we suggest the spine-tingling Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States?

Would that it were fiction. Climate change effects are so entrenched that the best strategy is a two-pronged approach: Adapt while trying to mitigate.

This was the crux of the soon-to-be-published 800-page report, whose Cliff Notes–style synopsis, “Summary for Decision Makers,” was released this week in Tucson, Arizona, during the Southwest Climate Summit at the Southwest Climate Science Center of the University of Arizona.

“We need to be worried about climate change because it’s clearly already affecting our region in ways that impact many areas—we’re seeing landscapes burning, dying because of heat and dryness,” lead author Jonathan Overpeck, of the Southwest Climate Science Center, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “We’re seeing reservoirs that were full just ten years ago now only half full on the Colorado. These are visible harbingers of what might come. What we need to do as a society is talk about it and figure out how to deal with these challenges.”

Overpeck, a nationally known environmental scientist, acknowledged that although solutions are possible, “the job of scientists is not to say what to do, but provide guidance for decision-making—climate mitigation by figuring out strategies that allow us to get by with less water or better manage our landscape vegetation—trying to slow down the problems while adapting to the changes.”

Featuring editorial contributions from 120 authors representing various areas of environmental expertise, the report focuses on the six states in the Southwestern U.S. (Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and New Mexico), which are “considered to be one of the most ‘climate-challenged’ regions of North America,” according to the summary.

Nearly 150 participants, including resource and environmental managers from several tribal entities, spent two days discussing environmental history, current status and future predictions. Funded by the U.S. Geological Survey, tribal representation attended from the Hopi, San Carlos Apache, White Mountain Apache, Gila River Indian Community, Pascua Yaqui, and Tohono O’odham of Arizona, as well as New Mexico’s Pueblo of Nambe and the Shivwits Band of Paiutes in southwest Utah.

The changes discussed by Overpeck during his ominous-sounding presentation are quite evident on Native lands.

“Our 30,000-acre reservation is pretty dry because of drought,” said Lawrence Snow, Land Resources Manager for Utah’s Shivwits Band of Paiutes. “Wildfires in the last decade have burned half our acreage and changed the landscape. We’ve got less trees, and bark beetles are trying to kill off the ones we do have. Once the fires happened and took out the ground cover, major storms brought big flooding. Seasons have changed; winter hangs around now until May. It’s weird the way the weather is changing.”

Delegate Francie Spencer of Arizona’s San Carlos Apache Tribe, who works in economic development, concurred.

“Our existence is still based on practices rooted in the land,” Spencer said. “There’s a water shortage across the reservation and because cattle are still one of our top economic drivers, without water, our stock numbers have been reduced. Unwanted nuisance vegetation along our rivers has been brought here by climate change. And we don’t have a lot of scientists to help us.”

The full report, available at summer’s end, acknowledges that Native regions face a higher climate-change burden than other areas.

“Native American lands, people and culture are likely to be disproportionately affected by climate change,” the authors state in one section, Unique Challenges Facing Southwestern Tribes—Impacts, Adaptation, and Mitigation. “Effects are likely to be greater than elsewhere because of endangered cultural practices, limited water rights and social, economic, and political marginalization—all of which are relatively common among indigenous people.”

Dan Ferguson of the University of Arizona Institute of the Environment edited that portion of the report.

“Disproportionate impact on Native peoples is true around the world,” Ferguson said, citing “marginal landscape on a lot of reservations in the U.S., particularly the Southwest with some of the driest and resource-poor areas established by policy, not by coincidence.”

Researchers elsewhere have come to similar conclusions. A report issued on June 12 by an international team of scientists said to expect more and more frequent wildfires over the course of the next century due to climate change. The wildfires raging in Colorado and New Mexico, one of them quite near the Mescalero Apache Reservation, would seem proof positive of such a prediction.

Indigenous Peoples have been adapting to climate change for centuries. Witness the Four Corners Area, one of the drought hot spots in the nation, involving Navajo and Hopi reservations in Arizona and pueblos in New Mexico.

“People have lived here and adapted for over a thousand years,” Ferguson said, adding, “How long can they continue the pattern of adaptation in a modern context? It’s scary.”

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