In the Fourth Climate Assessment released in November by the White House, the assessment includes chapters that focus on different regions of the United States and the impacts of climate change in those regions.
The Northern Plains Region chapter focuses on water, agriculture, recreation, tourism, energy and indigenous peoples. In previous articles, we have explored all but the impacts of climate change on energy and the different tribes in the region.
Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes are both integral in the “Mni Wiconi” movement that developed from the desire to prevent a pipeline from being built under the Missouri River just north of the Standing Rock Reservation.
The climate assessment recognizes this movement in its chapters on energy and indigenous people as a value that the tribes use to try to prevent possible disasters. These disasters could be exacerbated by the changes in weather patterns and the increase in weather variability.
“The infrastructure associated with the extraction, distribution, and energy produced from these resources is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including increasing average temperatures and heat waves, decreasing water availability in the summer, and an increase in the frequency and severity of heavy precipitation events leading to floods,” the report indicates.
This infrastructure includes railroads, roads, oil and water pipelines and cables, which will be impacted by rise and fall of extreme temperatures, the increase in precipitation and the increase in extreme flooding or drought events.
People in the region will need, and according to the assessment, some people are already preparing for the projected climate changes.
In some cases, emergency management system plans need to be put in place to address these potential events, and tribes may be hit harder than other areas given the high rate of poverty in tribal communities.
“Indigenous peoples in the region are observing many climate and seasonality changes to their natural environment and ecosystems, many of which are impacting livelihoods as well as traditional subsistence and wild foods, wildlife, plants and water for ceremonies and medicines, and health and well-being,” the report states.
Some of the preventative systems in the region already being tried are “railroad preventive maintenance, upgrades, and reliability standards; water-efficient cooling technologies for thermoelectric power plants, such as recirculating or wet–dry hybrid systems; and programs that reduce total and peak electricity demand.”
Water rights on tribal land, according to the assessment, may be in greater danger because of the many regulations already in place.
“Tribes have unique water rights and layers of relevant state and federal laws (for example, the Winters Doctrine and state water rights adjudication, and Prior Appropriation laws in the West). Climate change impacts on water resources are very likely to be compounded by these legal complexities, especially in cases where state water laws supersede tribal water codes and water rights during times of scarcity, such as at Wind River Reservation, where the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that the state has primary authority,” the report states.
While many tribes are working to create climate adaptations, these efforts are complicated by the federal regulations.
According to the report, “tribes also face unique legal and regulatory barriers because of post-colonial resettlement and reservation impacts of land fragmentation and uneven regulation by federal agencies.”
Tribes have to have “federal permission for many aspects of land and resource management” because much of tribal land is in “trust.”
Tribes have more freedom to address the concerns of infrastructure in the form of housing.
On Pine Ridge, the report indicates that the Oglala Lakota nation has “a sustainability plan that includes off-grid, climate-resilient housing and sustainable agriculture.”
As with all of the aspects of the Northern Great Plains, these sections on the climate’s impact on energy usage and tribal communities report that people will need to make improvements in infrastructure, perhaps change their usage of land, prepare for changes in water resource availability or overabundance, and make plans to prepare for changes in the natural resources currently available in their communities.
One statement in the report indicated that the changes in the climate lead to a “mismatch between traditional stories and current climate and seasons.”
The implication of this statement is that as the climate changes, and resources shift or disappear, the stories of the past, the customs, ceremonial needs and cultural needs will be threatened — not by another culture and oppression — but by a changing environment.