When only uncertainty is certain
by seawalker on November 14, 2016 - 5:23pm
The article ‘US tribes work with scientists against climate change’ (published in Al Jazeera) describes an initiative in the South-Central United States that has brought together Native American communities and climate scientists in the race for adaptation to increasing uncertainty in local weather patterns due to global climate change. The increasing frequency and severity of drought and flood events is making the provision of safe drinking water to households a challenge on tribal lands in this region; a natural forcing that is made more complicated by the fact that many reserves don’t have full control over their water facilities. In some cases, the state has even diverted water from tribal lands to large cities without any sort of tribal approval or compensation.
The article covers an initiative begun in 2012 between the South Central Climate Science Centre and local tribal leaders and resource managers, with both groups working together to provide answers, predictions, and adaptations for an uncertain future. Tribal representatives are responsible for identifying the unique vulnerabilities in their communities, including cultural practices that might be affected (such as the loss of species that serve important ceremonial functions). In turn, the SCCSC oversees research projects on the regional impacts of climate change on ecosystems, weather patterns, etc. from four state universities and several research teams, and translates the scientific results into easy to interpret guidance documents and instructional videos for the tribal leaders. This communication is achieved through tribal liaisons, who act as “match makers” between research projects and Native American communities. One such liaison explained how her work is essential to the resolution of behavioral conflict, saying “tribes tend to be protective of their resources and wary of outside interference… so relationship building is essential.”
The learning from this program goes both ways. Tribal leaders are trained on conducting vulnerability assessments that address the unique cultural needs of their communities, and given access to federal funding for adaptation measures. At the same time, scientist participants in the program gain access to local environmental knowledge systems and a holistic viewpoint of the environment that serves to broaden the scope of their research. The same tribal liaison is also quoted as saying “If we listen to the people that have a cultural link to the earth, they can share with us the changes they have seen over time”. As mentioned above, this type of collaborative problem solving and joint learning goes a long way to alleviate behavioral conflict- conflict that stems from historic injustices and lack of trust between parties.
In addition to the program’s recognition of the value of combining local environmental knowledge with more traditional scientific approaches, I believe that this program provides a good example of another trend in environmental management. Management practices are moving away from a command and control approach that is highly reliant on the “expert opinion” provided by scientists, but that often results in policy makers being removed from the resources or environments they seek to control. When complex ecosystems are viewed as a machine whose moving parts can be manipulated separately, there is no space left for uncertainty. In many resource management schemes such as Newfoundland’s cod fishery, this has resulted in devastating collapse. The collaborative research between the SCCSC and tribal leadership directly tackles this uncertainty, but instead of striving to remove it from the equation it simply tries to give resource managers as much information as possible, hopefully allowing them to build resilient systems in the great uncertainty of global climate change.
Crane Linn, Emily (August 7, 2016). US tribes work with scientists against climate change. Al Jazeera. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/07/tribes-work-scientists-climate-change-160713092436522.html