Storm surges, soupy seas and dead fish: Indigenous people bearing brunt of climate change

Native American leader Karen Diver speaks at Straight Talk National Summit’s trailblazer panel. Photo: Jillian Mundy/ Oxfam Australia

Indigenous tribes are on the frontline of the effects of climate change — and many are already being hard hit, a special assistant to former US President Barack Obama said Tuesday.

Karen Diver, a former Fond du Lac tribe leader and President Obama’s special assistant for Native American Affairs, said in the US tribes were already losing land and food to climate change.

Ms Diver was in Australia this week to talk to Aboriginaland Torres Strait Islander women in Canberra about leadership as part of Oxfam Australia’s Straight Talk National Summit.

In an interview with NIT, she said climate change was a big issue for Indigenous communities and already wreaking havoc.

Her comments come after a US government report warned Friday that unchecked climate change would damage human health and quality of life and cost the US hundreds of billions of dollars.

US President Donald Trump dismissed the Congressionally-mandated White House report Monday, saying he didn’t believe it.

Ms Diver told NIT Indigenous people have a different relationship with the land and much to lose.

“Indigenous people, because we are land based, very much have home territories and have a different relationship with the land,” she said.

“They are more adversely impacted by climate change and the opportunities for moving our traditional homelands aren’t there.”

“We talk about climate refugees and that is just not appropriate for Indigenous people who are very much land based.”

“We know that a lot of our traditional foods, our sacred places, access to food and food security issues are all impacted by climate change.”

Ms Diver said the US climate report devoted a chapter to the impact on tribes and Indigenous communities in the US and talked about them being among the most vulnerable on climate issues.

She said climate change was already there to see.

“Everything from Alaskan tribes dealing with storm surge because the seas don’t freeze over, changing migration patterns for caribou, which is a food source, to diminishment in salmon and other fish populations because streams are warming too quickly, flooding events, fires,” she said.

“The West Coast tribes all the way from Northern California up to Washington are trying to save salmon species and trying to compel state governments to undertake some climate resiliency strategies to help preserve those species of traditional fish.”

“We’ve had a tribe in Louisiana displaced by flooding because of swamp lands becoming higher and encroaching on homesteads. The whole gamut of climate impact.”

“Unfortunately for tribes they have less economic resiliency in terms of being able to undertake these solutions alone.”

Ms Diver said an international response to climate change was needed.

She said American leadership under the Trump administration was lacking, evidenced by the US government pulling out of the Paris Agreement on climate change last year.

The US government said the agreement undermined the US economy.

“The problem is that there’s not anything tribes can do on their own,” Ms Diver said. “A worldwide response is needed and we’re sorely lacking American leadership in this under this current administration, pulling out of the Paris accord.”

“The report that was issued Friday talked about the fact that there is already going to be lasting, long-term impacts with the current state of affairs and then worsening impacts if dramatic changes don’t happen in the next 10 to 15 years.”

“So unfortunately, the increased adverse risk to Indigenous communities is not going to be one caused by their own doing. They are not solutions that can be created among only themselves.”

By Wendy Caccetta

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