In July of this year I was honored to present at the First Stewards “Coastal Peoples Address Climate Change” Symposium held at the Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C.
While in D.C. I presented at the EPA – NTOC, which is co-chaired by EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and includes heads of EPA programs and Tribal representatives from across the country. A friend at the EPA said later they enjoyed my “It’s not about the berries and fish” climate change perspective.
We work with the EPA a lot and look at the EPA as a leader in working with Tribes on a government to government basis. All federal agencies are required to, but EPA has led the way. Four years ago I asked how Tribes and EPA will work together on climate change and an EPA staff member said you may notice changes in your berry gathering season.
As the Environmental Area Manager for the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin for 18 years and as a member of the Oneida Tribe, I knew EPA had a lot to learn about Oneida.
Hunting, fishing, and gathering is a way of life for many Tribes and an integral part of tradition and culture, but the Oneida Tribe has many interests. We are in northeast Wisconsin and have 2,900 employees, a Police Department, a school system, health center, waste water treatment plant, social services, public works, and housing authority. In other words, we are a responsible government providing modern-day government services. And yes, much of that is funded by our casino.
How are we going to plan for the new normal of climate change? Climate Change will be the biggest influence on life as we know it for this generation on. The opportunity to stop climate change has passed and we now have to learn to adapt. When I talk about climate change now, I no longer include the science. If I was talking to a group about the dangers of falling apples I would not explain the science of gravity. The only doubt of climate change is political not scientific.
The First Stewards symposium had representatives from Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and indigenous peoples from Hawaii, Guam, and American Samoa. These people are experiencing first-hand the devastating impact of climate change and face a very uncertain future. For Tribes in Wisconsin the impacts may not be as immediate, but we can look to the coastal people and know we have to prepare.
Two concerns from climate change models are heat and precipitation and this summer was a good preview of summers to come.
The number of hot days above 90 may double and we expect more short term heavy rain events. In 2003 a heat wave in Europe killed 70,000 and especially hard hit was northern France where many houses did not have air conditioning, like northern Wisconsin. Adaptation means more air conditioning, cooling centers, and public education. The heat wave of 2012 may have been less deadly for just those reasons.
Heavy rains in 2008 caused Lake Delton in the Wisconsin Dells area, land of the Ho-Chunk people, to burst. A highway was wiped out and a 600 million gallon lake was drained in a couple of hours. In June of 2012, heavy rains in Duluth Minnesota drowned animals at the zoo and washed a seal out into an intersection. The same heavy rains caused a road in central Wisconsin to collapse, killing three people.
Oneida needs the data and information to plan for the future and to best protect our infrastructure. I believe that climate change is the biggest threat to national security ever faced and we have to plan now to adapt. Oneida has the largest commercial farm in the area and climate change will impact agriculture. In the short term the most vulnerable portion of the agricultural economy might be the transportation infrastructure.
A heavy rain, not a hurricane, not a tsunami, but a 10 to 12 inch rain event over a couple of days could take out a highway and wipe out a Tribes main source of income. Imagine, local, state, or the federal government having revenue from taxes cut off due to rain.
The story of the Oneida Tribe and all 566 Tribes in the United States is about adaptation and survival. 520 years after Columbus, Tribes are still here. Today all governments and cultures will have to learn how to survive under climate change. Planning and adapting takes vision and leadership and we cannot afford a climate change denier as commander-in-chief.