As climate change alters the very environment that sustains us, traditional knowledge and Western science find themselves intersecting more and more.
A special issue of the peer-reviewed scientific journal Climatic Change has taken this up a notch in a tacit admission: Common sense demands that governments bring tribes to the table as full participants in a discussion of how to deal with the challenges that climate change presents and that they treat indigenous viewpoints not as quaint supplements to Western science but as equally valid explanations of how the world works—that such observations, taken as they are over millennia, are a science in their own right.
This increasing collaboration and respect between the two took a major step forward this month with the entire October issue of the journal Climatic Change devoted to indigenous perspectives on climate change—the first peer-reviewed journal to put traditional knowledge on a par with modern science. The issue also covers climate change’s effects on people and culture to paint a picture of its implications for daily life.
The issue, "Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples in the United States: Impacts, Experiences and Actions," features papers from American Indian scientists ranging from the Confederated Tribes of Siletz in Oregon to the Penobscot Indian Nation in Maine, plus a host of environmental experts from dozens of organizations. It grew out of a rising recognition of the degree to which Indigenous Peoples are on the frontlines of climate change and was spurred by work on the Third National Climate Assessment, a report put together by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a collaboration of the research departments of 13 federal departments and agencies.
The assessment marks the progress of the phenomenon formerly known as global warming. When the team requested papers for a single chapter on indigenous perspectives, 200 poured in from tribal environmental experts, said Julie Maldonado, who works with the Third National Climate Assessment and helped edit the journal issue.
"Working with the author team of the tribal chapter, we recognized that there was a need for peer-reviewed scientific literature on the impacts of climate change on indigenous people and tribal communities in the U.S.,” Maldonado told Indian Country Today Media Network. The wealth of material from across Indian country enabled her team to identify five or six key issues, from which they plotted out what the journal’s special edition would cover. "We really wanted to try to get every region involved if possible and to highlight some of those really important issues, such as water quality and quantity, permafrost melt and sea level rise.”
The result: a collaboration of more than 50 authors representing tribal communities, academia, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations that covers everything from the impacts of climate change on tribal traditional foods in the context of tribes' legal and regulatory relationship with the federal government, to the effects of glacier melt on Pacific salmonid species protection and recovery—and then some.
"This one journal issue covers all the different aspects of climate change—not just the science, but also the impacts on people and cultural resources, [presenting] a more holistic understanding of the implications of climate change,” said Laura Gephart, watershed program coordinator for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, whose member tribes are among the contributors. “It is unique to have it all in one journal."
Several articles stressed that because indigenous people often have limited financial resources and little political clout, and because they have relationships with the rest of the natural world that dominant cultures often do not recognize, they are simultaneously supremely vulnerable to climate change and uniquely qualified to understand it.
"Indigenous Peoples draw on practical lifeway experiences—not one person’s experience—but that of entire nations and communities to share multigenerational 'deep spatial' knowledges [sic] of empirical landscapes and seascapes,” wrote Daniel R. Wildcat, Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma, in his introductory essay.
Justice demands that governments support tribes' self-determined efforts to adapt to climate change, wrote Kyle Powys Whyte, Citizen Potawatomi, in "Justice forward: Tribes, climate adaptation and responsibility." Given that Indigenous Peoples bear the bulk of the climate change burden, environmental justice is a key component of a climate-change strategy.
Justice "represents a crucial framework for guiding leaders, scientists and professionals in their understanding of what actions are morally essential for supporting the institutions that tribes must rely on to adapt," wrote Whyte.
The call to action is the latest iteration of the concept of environmental justice, and this issue of Climatic Change may be one indication that the call is being heard.