Tribes in the South Central U.S. Partner with Researchers to Address Climate Change Effects

By HEIDI KOONTZ, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), CATHERINE PUCKETT, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) , CHRISTOPHER TRENT, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
9.25.2014 (Thu)

This week in New York City, world leaders convened for the United Nations Climate Summit. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey contribute to global climate change research in many areas, but an especially important one involves working with the people of Indian Country to plan for and adapt to climate change. Communities of indigenous peoples around the world are particularly vulnerable to ecological climate impacts that can threaten culturally important species or lands, as well as irrevocably alter subsistence lifestyles.

Interior’s Climate Science Centers and Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous peoples are one of the most important partners of the eight Interior Department Climate Science Centers, and the South Central Climate Science Center, hosted at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, is a leader in forging a crucial relationship with tribes.

The value of building and growing such relationships is highlighted by two recent products of the SC CSC. The first is a film, Listening for the Rain, which documents the way climate change is affecting the way of life of many tribes. The second product is a Tribal Engagement Strategy, which describes issues of interest to the 68 Native American tribes in the South Central United States, SC CSC research programs and initiatives relevant to tribes, and ways to better share climate science knowledge of researchers and of tribal members in the region.

Listening to the Rain

The 22-minute film, Listening for the Rain, was produced by University of Oklahoma and funded and supported by the SC CSC. The video amplifies the voices of tribal environmental observers who historically have not been heard.  The video emerged from five InterTribal workshops on Climate Variability and Change held in Oklahoma and New Mexico last summer.  The workshops were hosted by the University of Oklahoma and sponsored by the SC Climate Science Center.

“These interviews provided us with a first-hand look into the effects that climate change is having on tribes,” said Kim Winton, director of the SC CSC.  “This video and its associated workshops will better prepare research communities in assisting the tribes and to partner with them in the science needed to help them develop adaptation strategies for climate change.”

Paulette Blanchard, an Absentee Shawnee woman who is a Master’s degree student in the OU Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability, narrates Listening for the Rain. Blanchard facilitated the workshops, led group discussions and collaborated with Native filmmakers Filoteo Gómez Martinez and Jeffery Palmer on the project.

Laurel Smith, OU assistant professor of geography and environmental sustainability, says, “Blanchard seeks to blend Tribal perspectives with climate science in ways that respect, enrich and sustain the natural and cultural resources distinguishing the places Native Peoples call home.  She wants to document the impacts of climate change from the perspectives of the region’s Tribal nations.”

A Tribal Engagement Strategy

Collaboration between the eight Interior Department Climate Science Centers, partner agencies and indigenous peoples is vital for minimizing and adapting to potential harmful effects of climate change on them and their surrounding ecosystems, according to the newly released USGS Circular, Tribal Engagement Strategy of the South Central Climate Science Center, 2014.

The circular outlines how the SC CSC provides climate science training and science tools that can help tribes assess their natural and cultural resource vulnerabilities and develop adaptation strategies. The circular also provides resources related to funding opportunities, climate science resources and partnership contacts.

“We are not only sharing information and research about climate change mitigation and adaptation with tribes, but we are also soliciting feedback from tribes about how ecosystems and cultural resources can be maintained as climate changes,” explains Winton. “It is very much meant to be a two-way conversation.”

These two-way conversations are especially important in the south central region of the United States, which is home to 68 federally recognized tribes in New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. Of the eight CSCs, the South Central CSC is the only one with Tribal Nations, the Chickasaw Nation and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, as consortium members. Some tribes have lived in these areas and have adapted to climate variability for centuries while others were relocated and had to adjust to new, different climates in the course of just a few years or decades.

“These tribes maintain historical and present-day links to the land, and have a strong stewardship ethic and in-depth relationships with the environment and natural resources,” says Winton. “Tribes can bring unique skills related to long-term observations and reporting of local evidence of climate change. By sharing knowledge and data among tribes, CSCs, and other stakeholders, new tools can be developed to better inform those who manage resources in the face of climate impacts.”

The benefits, said Winton, will extend far beyond Indian Country.

Working with South Central Tribes on Adapting to Climate Change

In 2013, President Obama, when introducing his Climate Action Plan, said that “…Science, accumulated and reviewed over decades, tells us that our planet is changing in ways that will have profound impacts on all of humankind…those who are already feeling the effects of climate change don’t have time to deny it—they’re busy dealing with it. We can help tribal communities deal with climate change. With their help we also will deepen and expand the science that contributes to a safer world for us all.”

The partnerships between the South Central CSCs and Indian Country, as well as many other CSC partnerships with indigenous peoples elsewhere in the U.S., help fulfill this important national obligation to assist these communities in effectively dealing with climate change.

Over the last two years, the South Central CSC has itself distributed $2.8 million in grants to support cutting-edge science in the region. It also secured a $20 Million National Science Foundation grant that in part, enables researchers to work with local tribes on how to sustainably adapt to climate change.

Figure4In addition to these funding opportunities, the South Central CSC, has launched a series of training workshops to equip tribal leaders and resource managers with the climate know-how they will need to adapt to changing conditions in the future. Topics range from the basics of climate change science to how to create vulnerability assessments and adaptation plans, to the use of GIS.

Consortium Partners

The SC CSC is located at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. Consortium partners include the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, Texas Tech University, Louisiana State University, the Chickasaw Nation, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. The South Central CSC is the only consortium to have any tribes as members and the only CSC to have a full-time tribal liaison.

Originally posted as a USGS Top Story

For more information, please see the Past, Present and Future Climates Go Hand in Hand with Tribes news release