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Climate Change and Indian Country Our Changing World

Climate change is not imminent; it is ongoing. The evidence of climate change and its impact on the United States and Indian Country is palpable: smoke engulfing major cities, record-breaking temperatures, extreme weather events, melting icebergs and warnings of future wars for water. The time to prevent climate change has passed, and thus starts the time to prepare for life with the harsh reality.


“For years there were wars fought over oil; in a short time, there will be wars fought over water,” Vice President Kamala Harris said.





The impact of climate change caused by carbon emissions is irreversible, but there is a chance of slowing the rate of climate change impacting the world. However, that would require an immediate buy-in from all contributors, including major economic sectors and governments, which does not seem imminent.


Indian Country is disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to its land. Many tribes’ reservation boundaries are within flood plains and other areas prone to extreme weather events. Many tribes also base their industries on climate-sensitive resources.


Although Indian Country is at an elevated risk of climate change, its sovereign land provides the opportunity for energy and water independence.


DEFINING CLIMATE CHANGE


NASA defines climate change as the long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns for the Earth’s local, regional and global climates. Some claim climate change occurs naturally, but there is compelling evidence of human activities - following the Industrial Revolution - being the main driving force for rapid climate change.

Scientists study climate change’s past, present and future impacts by observing the Earth’s ground, air and space. Their observations have found significant evidence of climate change by recording rising sea levels, increasing ocean temperatures, and the frequency and severity of severe weather.




Human activities, such as burning fossil fuels and draining the Earth’s natural resources, are widely believed to be the main contributors to climate change. Burning fossil fuels traps greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, in the Earth’s atmosphere, increasing the world’s temperature. Depleting Earth’s natural resources, such as deforestation or degrading wetlands, changes the environment and removes the natural barriers necessary to brace for extreme weather events. For example, wetlands act as a sponge for flood protection, but because the wetlands are being degraded, the surrounding communities are drastically impacted by the floods. Wetlands also radically reduce the damage caused by tropical storms, but cutting down the trees in these areas reduces their protection potential.


CLIMATE CHANGE DRIVERS


The Environmental Protection Agency reports that transportation is responsible for emitting 27% of all greenhouse emissions in the United States in 2020, the leading economic sector. Cars, trucks, trains, ships, airplanes and other vehicles that rely on petroleum and diesel fuel sources are the most significant contributors to greenhouse emissions.




Electric power and industrial services closely follow the transportation sector at 25% and 24%, respectively. Industry service refers to the goods and raw materials that are used daily.

Two of the world’s most influential leaders – China and the U.S. – are among the most significant contributors to CO2 emissions. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that China is responsible for contributing 9.9 GT (metric gigatons) of CO2 from fossil fuels into the atmosphere in 2019, nearly doubling the United State’s 4.7 GT. However, when considering the population in relation to CO2 emissions, the U.S. ranks ahead of China in CO2 emissions per capita.


HOW DOES CLIMATE CHANGE IMPACT US


The easiest way to observe climate change is by watching the weather patterns. The average temperature rises yearly, causing icebergs to melt at an accelerated rate. More severe storms are popping up, such as the record-breaking ice storms and heat waves in the Pacific Northwest, the monsoon that killed at least 25 people in Kentucky and flooded numerous communities, and the heat waves in China and India.



Poor infrastructure in the United States cannot withstand extreme weather events. This is evident when acknowledging the ice storms that knocked out the Texas power grid and the Jackson, Mississippi water system.


Water scarcity is already an issue worldwide, and man-made errors only exasperate the problem. While sea levels rise due to the melting ice caps, access to consumable water is shrinking. As the world’s population increases, so does the demand for freshwater access, most of which goes directly to agriculture. Despite comprising of mostly water, 97.5% of the Earth’s water is not suitable for human consumption.


It is easy to observe how climate change impacts weather patterns, but climate change can also create a surge in spreading diseases and pests. The rising temperatures make a suitable environment for fleas, ticks, rodents and other pests to spread diseases, such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus.


MAN-MADE ERRORS


The U.S. is not prepared to face a climate crisis. Years of neglecting infrastructure across the U.S. has weakened the country to natural disasters and severe weather events.

Man-made errors only exasperate the issue of water scarcity. For instance, the U.S. Navy leaked over 20,000 gallons of jet fuel into the O’ahu, Hawaii water system in 2021. Native Hawaiians were told to conserve and not use their water while resorts and tourism demand took over the natural resource.


SOLUTIONS FOR INDIAN COUNTRY


Evidence of environmental racism from the U.S. government is palpable. The government often neglects at-risk groups. This is evident when observing the Flint, Mich., O’ahu, Hawaii and Jackson, Miss. water crises. Indian Country cannot rely on the U.S. to help them when an emergency strikes. The time to be proactive and prepare for the oncoming climate disaster is now.


Quapaw Nation’s Chairman Joseph Byrd discussed the issue of energy independence in the last issue of The Quapaw Post, stating short and long-term strategies must start to be developed. The Quapaw Nation plans to expand their member’s utility assistance cap in anticipation of the rising energy costs while preparing for energy independence within the next five years.




“There are unprecedented amounts of federal funding available, specifically for tribes to increase their overall energy independence,” said Byrd. “This will be a tremendous wave, very similar to how Indian gaming was two and three decades ago. We will need to increase our efforts in bringing energy-efficient housing to our tribal members, solar-energy programs that reduce monthly costs and expanding our existing infrastructure to serve the needs of our people better. This will not be easy, and it will take time to develop, but the overall goal of ours. The tribe should be complete energy independence in the next five years.”

The Quapaw Nation is also working on food sovereignty, although the rising temperatures and changing climate have proven to be a tricky obstacle. Farmers must adjust and work with the ever-changing weather patterns on the fly.





“This had been an unfortunate year for everyone, the heat and drought conditions are affecting most of the crops,” said Michelle Bowden, Quapaw Nation Food Sovereignty director. “We are fortunate that this year we were able to install drip irrigation and mulch to most of the gardens which really helps us conserve water. The extreme heat and lack of cloud coverage has caused major heat stress for the plants. This year we are installing a shade cloth for the tomatoes in our high tunnels to protect them."


QUAPAW NATION INITATIVE


The Quapaw Nation has had recycling services for its offices for nearly 25 years. Their environmental department takes the recycling bins from the offices and transports the materials to recycling facilities. A green, public recycling bin at the C-Store is also available for anyone to use.


Additionally, the environmental department set up a solid-waste container in Picher, Okla. Picher is located on a Superfund site which leads some to believe it is acceptable to litter. The Quapaw Nation installed dumpsters to encourage people to throw their trash away correctly.





The meat processing plant is powered by solar energy, reducing its reliance on fossil fuels. There is hope that solar power will be used more efficiently for the rest of the Quapaw Nation soon.


Not only are solar panels helping cut fossil fuel reliance, but they offer a financial incentive too. According to Wade Payne, plant manager, the solar panels have cut the electricity bill in half.